4G in the UK: Timelines settled, now fight for the customers

The UK’s 4G saga may have reached its climax in August with Everything Everywhere receiving permission to launch its own LTE network early, but the story isn’t over yet. UK regulator Ofcom announced yesterday that it would move forward the auction for the Digital Dividend creating by switching off analogue TV, and that clearance of TV transmitters will be brought forward by around five months.

This is a clear concession to O2 and Vodafone, who were the most vocal in criticising the decision to let EE launch 4G on its 1800MHz spectrum. Given the uncertainty over dates and the long lead times, both operators faced potential waits of around a year to launch their own 4G networks. Add to that the fact that Apple’s new iPhone 5, which hit the market just a few weeks after Ofcom’s announcement, only supports LTE over the 1800MHz frequency in the UK; this might not be an operator’s worst nightmare, but it must certainly be high on the list.

As I said back in August, the danger remained of O2 and Vodafone mounting a legal challenge to stop EE being able to launch its 4G network. But it looks like we’ve avoided that particular nuclear option, which would have caused even more delays; more to the point, it looks like everybody’s (just about) gotten what they wanted.

EE gets to move ahead with its 4G launch, which is expected to go ahead before Christmas. O2 and Vodafone get to bid on the new spectrum earlier than was previously announced. Three stands to get its reserved block of sub-1GHz spectrum in the auction, a provision that its rivals – notably O2 – had challenged during the interminable consultation process. Ofcom can enjoy a rare moment of not having everybody criticise it. And most crucially, UK consumers will get access to 4G services from multiple operators, and in a timely fashion.

In the end, Ofcom has navigated this problem pretty cleverly – by giving one operator a headstart, it succeeded in getting the others to settle down and agree to speed up the process. It’s just a shame that the process took so long, and looked so precarious at times.

What’s more, O2 and Vodafone now have to determine what to do until they can roll out their own 4G networks. One thing is upgrading their networks to HSPA+; another is to convince restive users that HSPA+ will be a satisfactory substitute until LTE comes in. This may not be enough to hold onto the die-hard Apple fans, but this may prove a blessing in disguise – those are likely to be more intense data users, which means network performance could improve for those users who stay put. Cold comfort, perhaps, but the operators will have to take what they can get, after the failure of their strategy of legal challenges.

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