Alastair Brydon, of telecom consultancy Unwired Insight, comments on the UK timetable for 4G spectrum allocation.
Recently there has been a flurry of announcement of LTE launches in Europe, referred to by some as 4G networks. For example, this month, Tele2 and Telenor announced the commercial launch of LTE services in Sweden, with aggressive plans for 99% 4G coverage of the population by 2012. Early widespread deployment of LTE is an essential way to relieve the 3G capacity crisis facing mobile operators and may alleviate the need for punitive tariffs and traffic shaping (which may adversely affect quality of service for mobile users). However, even if 4G networks can be launched immediately, it will still take several years for them to make a significant contribution to mobile network capacity. To do this, they need to be available on a widespread basis and there needs to be a significant penetration of LTE devices, so the earlier operators can begin LTE deployment, the sooner 4G can start helping to relieve 3G capacity problems.
In the UK, LTE will enable O2 and Vodafone to make a much more efficient use of their 900MHz spectrum allocations. LTE can support 25 times the traffic of GSM in the same amount of spectrum. After years of delays to the UK’s 4G spectrum allocation process, the latest 4G news is not good, and will mean that the UK will be at a significant disadvantage compared with other European countries, such as Germany. Germany completed its 4G spectrum auction in May 2010, raising EUR4.38 billion, and operators including Vodafone have already started upgrading base stations with LTE.
This month, Ofcom’s Ed Richards announced the timetable for the 4G spectrum auction in the UK. While Sweden will enjoy 99% population coverage of 4G networks by 2012, the UK spectrum auction will only just have taken place, in the second quarter of 2012. This also relies on the absence of any litigation threats (which have dogged the spectrum auction process to date), which would jeopardise the lengthy timetable yet further. In the long period between now and the auction, there will be a consultation about the auction, due to take place between February 2011 and May 2011. Following this, the final auction regulations will be published by the end of 2011. Ed Richards is reported to have said that this timetable is “ambitious” but from my perspective it looks rather disappointing and a missed opportunity for the UK to be a leader in next-generation mobile services.
Reading various press articles, there seems to be a great deal of confusion over when we’ll see the first LTE network deployments, with spectrum clearance occurring during 2013. Ed Richards suggested that 4G networks will be up and running by the first quarter of 2014, which is over three years away. I’m not sure that mobile network operators, and more specifically their customers, will be happy to wait that long.