Ofcom: Shot by both sides

It’s pretty safe to say that if you get three mobile operators in a room to talk about spectrum auctions, they won’t agree about much. But what they are likely to agree on is that it’s the regulator’s fault, whatever it is.

This makes the Future of Mobile 2012 Westminster e-Forum sound a little more dramatic than it was – nobody threw any chairs, or punches, and the tone was collegial throughout – but it was certainly fascinating to see O2, Everything Everywhere and Three discuss the impending 4G auction and proposals to let Everything Everywhere launch 4G over its existing 1800MHz spectrum.

David Dyson, Three’s CEO, called on Ofcom to reinstate a guarantee for access to sub-1GHz spectrum. This guarantee, which had been included in last year’s first consultation document but was missing from the second consultation released in January, would have helped Three get a portion of the 800 and 900MHz spectrum that Vodafone and O2 currently hold; lower frequencies would improve Three’s coverage and signal strength by quite a bit.

Naturally, Nicholas Blades, who heads Telefonica O2 UK’s bid team, was less enthralled by the idea of his company losing some of its low-frequency spectrum to a rival. He did agree, however, with Dyson’s concerns about Everything Everywhere getting to launch 4G before all the other operators, framing his argument in terms of “haves” and “have-nots”.

Meanwhile, Everything Everywhere’s Kip Meek defended his company’s plan to roll out LTE using the existing 1800MHz spectrum by saying it is inappropriate to deny LTE access to customers when so much of the rest of Europe has it, and attributing the disagreement to fundamental clashing economic interests between operators. Meek had his own suggestions for Ofcom, saying the regulator should “step back” and simplify the auction; the company has had to divest some of its existing 1800MHz spectrum, and Meek said the regulator had made this process more complicated too.

The morning’s first session was a little less contentious, focusing as it did on m-commerce, mobile payments and NFC. The most interesting discussion in this session came from Russell Sheffield, of Paythru, whose m-commerce platform is designed to allow secure financial transactions over customers’ mobiles. A drawback of existing m-commerce services, Sheffield suggested, was that they rely too much on changing customer behavior – not all retailers will be willing or able to add NFC card readers to their shops, nor will all customers be willing to load money onto a mobile wallet, if it requires the extra step of moving their money from their bank account. Paythru calls its solution frictionless, as it is designed to work across all handsets, networks and banks, without requiring special card readers or apps to be installed.

Of course, m-commerce is a sector where most of the UK’s operators have already set aside their differences, given that Everything Everywhere, O2 and Vodafone have teamed for a joint venture to enable mobile payments and mobile marketing. Just don’t expect the arguments about spectrum allocations to be resolved so easily.

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