With the rapid increase in mobile data consumption that has been seen in the UK over the last few years, you could be forgiven for thinking that 4G, which will herald the end of mobile network congestion, is just around the corner. Unfortunately, this is not so – in the UK, at least.
While America, who have traditionally lagged behind in mobile network innovation, and our European neighbours either already have commercial 4G networks available, or are about to be launched imminently, it appears that the UK is unable to move past the consultation stage for the spectrum auction which will allow the deployment of the next-generation of mobile networks in the UK.
Who is to blame? Well, quite simply, it is the operators. As Ed Vaizey correctly pointed out on Thursday, every single mobile operator has threatened to sue Ofcom at one point or another over their proposed spectrum auctions. The threats of legal action go back as far as 2008, before it was even clear that the extra spectrum would be used for 4G. The reason being that, at the time, Ofcom were considering other spectrum proposals which meant that T-Mobile at the time said that this meant they didn’t know how much spectrum to bid for. Had this legal challenge not been made, the auction may have gone ahead in 2008!
Alas, it did not. In 2009, Ofcom had another go – however this time their proposal barred O2 and Vodafone from participating unless they gave up some of their 900Mhz spectrum. Surprisingly, it wasn’t O2 and Vodafone that had too much of an issue with these proposals, as they were happy to keep their 900Mhz spectrum, but it was again T-Mobile who wanted Vodafone and O2 to be forced to release some 900Mhz spectrum. Later on, Vodafone and O2 decided they did have an issue, as they felt that the merger of T-Mobile and Orange meant that Everything Everywhere (EE) now had too much 1800Mhz spectrum.
Then the 2010 general election meant that any spectrum auction would have to be delayed until the election had finished and the new government finalized their policies. This happened in July 2010, with Ed Vaizey saying that the auctions should take place by the end of 2011. Obviously, this didn’t happen with legal threats by Vodafone and O2 still very likely.
This forced Ofcom to go back to the drawing board, and come up with some new proposals. And Ofcom did just that in January 2012, proposing that spectrum should be reserved for a fourth operator, most likely to be Three. However, this reserved spectrum would not necessarily be in the 800Mhz band. However, it was also revealed in these proposals that Everything Everywhere had applied to re-farm their 1800Mhz spectrum for 4G services. This would have allowed Everything Everywhere to roll-out 4G early, however, would have given them a monopoly position. At the same time, Everything Everywhere were unhappy with the rest of the proposals, as they gave them no guarantee of sub-1000Mhz spectrum.
In March 2012, Ofcom gave preliminary backing to EE for their 1800Mhz re-farming. This now meant that Vodafone were unhappy, both with the spectrum auction proposals, as they felt that spectrum didn’t need to be reserved for Three, and with the 1800Mhz spectrum re-farming. O2 were also unhappy with the spectrum re-farming proposals. While the final decision has yet to be announced, it is very likely that Ofcom will deny Everything Everywhere permission to re-farm their 1800Mhz spectrum until after the 800Mhz and 2600Mhz auctions have finished, to prevent further threats of litigation.
And that brings us to now. I’m sure there are probably some small parts missing in that, and I haven’t discussed all of the litigation threats that have been made by various networks, but this is the gist of the current situation. Every single network at some point has held this process up, while at the same time claiming to be acting in the interests of consumers.
Officially, the auctions are still expected to commence by the end of 2012. However, with both Three and Everything Everywhere being unhappy that they are not guaranteed spectrum below 1000Mhz, and Vodafone and O2 disagreeing that any network should be reserved any spectrum, it is likely that the auctions will be delayed even further, and there does not appear to be any light at the end of the tunnel as of yet. Meanwhile, the rest of the world are gaining access to super-fast mobile data while the UK remains stuck in the slow lane.