EE’s 4G launch is the start of the race, not the end

Ofcom doesn’t get a whole lot of days like this. I suggested back in March that when you get a bunch of mobile operators in the same room to talk about spectrum, the one thing they’ll be able to agree on is that somewhere, somehow the regulator has dropped the ball. The Finally 4G Westminster e-Forum featured none of that, presumably to the great relief of the Ofcom representatives in attendance.

Even more impressively, there was relatively little sniping between the operators themselves, despite EE jumping ahead of the pack at the end of October to launch LTE. Instead, the consensus appeared to be that, despite getting a notable advantage by being able to offer 4G nearly a year before its competitors, EE’s work is just beginning.

A key theme of the seminar was that demand for data services is only going to increase. This was the opinion both of the operators, all four of which were in attendance, and of the industry and financial analysts who took the stage for the second half of the event to talk about the implications of 4G’s arrival in the UK. This is hardly an earth-shattering insight, but it underlined the importance of getting the auction right, and of getting longer-term policy right to ensure that infrastructure can cope with demand.

An example that came up several times during the day was the Olympics. Derek McManus, COO of Telefonica UK, pointed out that the Olympic Stadium alone experienced as much data traffic during the event as the city of York (population ca. 200,000), while the Olympic Park experienced as much traffic as the rather larger city of Leeds (ca. 750,000). Bob El-Harawy, of Research in Motion, noted that the bulk of traffic was uploading rather than downloading.

While the Olympics aren’t a yearly occurrence, they can serve as a glimpse of what a better-connected UK will look like. Accordingly, when Professor H Nwana of Ofcom gave his presentation on the upcoming 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum auction, he stressed that in the medium to long term the regulator will be looking at freeing up even more spectrum, both in the 700MHz band and the military’s 2.3 and 3.4GHz bands.

This is the natural outgrowth of mobile internet technology reaching the point where it is becoming comparable to fixed in terms of speed and capabilities. And given the immediacy and flexibility of what you can do on your phone or tablet – uploading pictures, tweeting, and a whole raft of heretofore undiscovered activities – mobile internet traffic may even catch up to fixed traffic someday.

All of which means that EE may have won the 100-meter dash by launching 4G first, but now it has to finish the marathon task of rolling out the network and then keeping it running. Over the long term, a head start like that matters much less.


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