Mathew Howett, Ovum
“The importance of bringing 4G to Britain can’t be underestimated. With a commitment to have the best super-fast broadband in Europe by 2015, mobile is going to play an important role. The earliest route to 4G would be through Everything Everywhere’s 1800MHz spectrum and Ofcom is right to be considering this option, however consumers will only see the true benefit if there is competition between operators in the provision of services. This can only be fully achieved through the joint award of spectrum at 800MHz and 2.6GHz planned for the end of this year.
Ofcom now has the unenviable task of finalizing the design of that auction. Unless there are some material changes to the current proposals (such as the removal of minimum spectrum portfolios), litigation seems almost inevitable. With no obvious way out of the deadlock any legal challenge could send everyone back to the drawing broad. Only a direction from the UK government could keep the auction on track and this is something that it must now wake up to.
If pressure mounts on Ofcom to allow EE to use its existing 1800MHz now for 4G then it has to consider how to safeguard competition. It has at least a couple of options. It could consider imposing a wholesale access obligation on EE to allow other interested operators the opportunity to also launch services. This could be removed once the award of new spectrum eventually takes place. However this would not be quick or easy.
Alternatively competition could come from whoever acquires the 1800MHz spectrum that EE must divest (one of the conditions of allowing T-Mobile and Orange to merge in the first place). At the moment the other operators do not hold sufficient quantities of 1800MHz spectrum to launch 4G in any compelling way. This would require Ofcom preventing EE deploying 4G at 1800MHz until it has completed the sale of this spectrum.
Clearly neither of these two options are ideal, which makes the importance of proceeding with the joint award of new spectrum at 800MHz and 2.6GHz later this year that more important.