Government forges month’s truce with mobile operators, but could be too late
A simmering row over the roll-out of 4G in Britain looks set to blow up in the government’s face, despite the brokering of a temporary peace deal with mobile operators. Next Friday [21st September 2012] Apple’s much-awaited iPhone 5 is launched in the UK but only EE, the new 4G brand from Everything Everywhere, will be able to offer it to customers. This is because the new iPhone has been optimised for just three spectrum bands, one of which – the 1800MHz band – only EE has thanks to a recent decision by the regulator Ofcom to let the company re-deploy it for 4G use.
The other two bands optimised for the iPhone are the 850MHz, which doesn’t work in Britain, and the 2.1GHz band which currently only supports 3G services.
Meanwhile Apple has taken the view the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands, for which O2 and Vodafone and other operators will be able to bid at auction in spring 2013, are not sufficiently developed for its latest smartphone.
All of which has left EE’s rivals furious with the government regulator, arguing that it has given Britain’s biggest mobile operator an unfair competitive advantage when it comes to 4G.
Their threats of litigation to prevent the roll-out of EE’s 4G were temporarily averted by outgoing culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who secured a month’s stay of action before they went to court.
But with the clock ticking and no sign of how the mess can be resolved, it looks as though EE’s rivals will be forced to sue if they still feel there isn’t an even playing field.
Complicating matters is the fact that while O2 and Vodafone could petition Ofcom to allow them to reuse the 3G spectrum for 4G services, Ofcom has already said its could take five to 10 years to free this up due to its existing heavy usage.
Before Jeremy Hunt was promoted to Health Secretary in a Cabinet reshuffle last week, the former Culture Secretary summoned the CEO’s of the four UK mobile groups in the hope of persuading EE’s rivals from launching damaging litigation to block 4G roll out. Ofcom also attended.
New Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, has since also been brought up to speed on the situation, though observers think time is running out fast and that the government’s proposed December auctioning of the spectrum, in which Ofcom will share out the frequencies freed up by the digital switchover for 4G, will be too little, too late.