4G: UK’s mobile phone networks in crunch meeting

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A key meeting concerning the UK’s roll-out of 4G mobile network services is due to take place later.

 

Mobile operators will discuss with regulators plans to bring forward the auction of spectrum to run 4G services – which allow faster mobile download speeds than the existing 3G network.

 

Ministers hope to appease operators angered that Everything Everywhere (EE) was given permission to launch first.

 

A deal could pave the way for EE to announce its 4G launch date.

 

Tuesday’s meeting, to be chaired by new Culture Secretary Maria Miller, is designed to prevent mobile operators from launching an appeal against communications regulator Ofcom’s decision to allow EE to use its existing bandwidth to provide 4G.

 

It is expected that EE will soon reveal that 4G will be available to its customers by the end of October.

‘Clever move’

The other operators are not able to offer 4G until other parts of the radio spectrum, including those used for terrestrial television, are freed up and sold off.

The BBC understands the most likely deal on Tuesday will involve a commitment from Ofcom to bring forward the auction to sell those frequencies.

The auction, which has been repeatedly pushed back, is currently scheduled to take place early in the new year – but would be held back further should the likes of O2 or Vodafone were to mount a legal challenge against EE’s early start.

The government will hope the promise of an earlier auction, and therefore earlier possible roll-out, may be enough of a bargaining chip to convince the rival operators not to press forward with their complaints.

“Ofcom made quite a clever move by allowing EE to launch early,” said Matthew Howett, a telecoms analyst with Ovum. “Because it’s now really set the wheels in motion, and will see the others pull their fingers out.”

A source at one major network told the BBC that it was also seeking a guarantee from EE that it would not hinder the operation of Mitco, an organisation that has been set up to deal with the possible interference 4G may have on other signals such as digital television.

Mitco will eventually be run jointly by the mobile operators and will be tasked with overseeing the distribution of filters and other equipment to prevent disruption – a scheme which is expected to cost in the region of £180m.

iPhone 5

EE gave details of its 4G plans in a lavish press event last month, and said it would offer 4G in 16 UK cities by the end of the year. However, it declined to give a firm date on when the service would be open for use by the public.

That delay was in part caused by the fierce negotiations between Ofcom and the other networks.

The networks felt aggrieved that EE had been handed a considerable headstart in the 4G race, while the other operators would have to wait until the outcome of an auction before they can try and catch up lost ground.

Apple’s latest iPhone, which launched the day after EE’s 4G event, is available on all the major networks – but only EE is able to offer customers 4G speeds on the handset.

Ofcom has defended its decision, saying that to delay EE from launching 4G would have been “to the detriment of consumers”.

In contrast, O2 said they were “hugely disappointed” with the decision, while Vodafone said: “The regulator has shown a careless disregard for the best interests of consumers, businesses and the wider economy.”

Ovum’s Mr Howett said while EE may appear to have been given the early upper hand, it still has a tricky marketing task ahead if it is to capitalise.

“I think it is about two things,” he told the BBC. “One is about what the pricing of 4G is going to be. EE would be be pretty mad to price people out of it, so I suspect it’ll be quite competitive.

“The second thing is the iPhone 5 impact. For me and a lot of other people the iPhone 5 was very much an incremental upgrade. If people are in the market for a new phone, and people who were on a two-year contract are looking to upgrade, EE will say ‘come to us’.”

 

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