4G Britain: too late, or just in time?

The first 4G services will launch in the UK in 2013. broadbandchoices.co.uk asks what next-generation mobile broadband means the country, whether it is too late, and why, for people living in rural areas, life could begin at 4G.

4G is a technological Bigfoot. You've probably heard all about it - the next generation of mobile broadband, succeeding and surpassing current 3G networks. The great hope for remote regions of the country, with the potential to deliver home broadband speeds to areas where home broadband is barely better than dial-up. But few of you will have seen it, save the odd glimpse by those lucky enough to live in a trial area.

However, unlike Bigfoot (sorry conspiracy theorists) 4G is very real, and coming to the UK - it's just been delayed so many times it makes our rail network look like a beacon of reliability. But there was some good news this week - Ofcom, the UK's communications regulator, has finalised its plans to auction chunks of the radio spectrum that mobile providers need to deliver 4G services. That means if things go to plan, customers should start receiving 4G services in late 2013. What's more, Ofcom expects mobile broadband to cover 98% of the UK by 2017.

What's the hold up?

So why's it taking so long? After all, it's ridiculous that a technology that's already available to consumers in a number of countries, including Norway, Germany and the USA, won't be up and running over here for more than a year, putting the UK more than three years behind countries with established 4G networks.

The problem lies with the mobile networks. Or Ofcom. Or all of the above - it depends on who you ask. The major mobile operators have been fighting between themselves and Ofcom to ensure the auction is what they perceive as fair - even go so far as to threaten Ofcom with litigation. There isn't room to get deep into all the arguments here, but suffice to say, it's a tangled web of legal shenanigans, political manoeuvring and good ol' fashioned bickering. The upshot is that the average consumer - people like me and you - have had to wait for 4G.

Which is why Ofcom finalising its 4G auction plans is a Very Good Thing. There's a road map now. We have timescales, and assuming that nothing else stops the auction going ahead, we know when we can expect to have access to the networks ourselves. It may not exactly what we want - it's galling that we still have to wait - but we should be grateful there's been progress.

Cautious optimism

The mobile networks seem equally positive about the plan, though they stressed they need to examine the details closely before determining their positions. Three (

), for example, told us that the spectrum auction would have a "lasting effect on the choice of services and value available to mobile consumers," and that it is going through the details to "evaluate what it means for both consumers and competition in the UK mobile market."

Other providers were more outwardly optimistic. An O2 spokesman said: "Ofcom's detailed rules for the auction represent a significant step towards 4G launch in the UK. Whilst Ofcom has taken a number of our suggestions on board, they are combined with other changes to the previous proposals. We will need to study the package in detail before responding to the Notice on the Regulations, which puts the rules into law."

That sentiment is echoed by Vodafone, which "welcomes the work it [Ofcom] has done." A UK spokesperson told us: "We also support the regulator's desire to see 4G services delivered to as many people as possible. However, we will obviously need to study today's lengthy documents to make sure they deliver the fair and open auction that this country needs."

Rural reflections

Ask someone living in a rural part of the UK what the country needs, and their answer is likely to be a lot simpler - better broadband as soon as possible. For many people in the countryside, decent broadband speeds are little more than a pipe dream - some rural residents struggle to get speeds of more than 2Mb and often have to cope with less than 0.5Mb .

For many, 4G is the one, great hope of getting decent broadband in their areas, and the constant delays to the rollout are infuriating. That's why Sarah Lee, head of policy at the Countryside Alliance, believes Ofcom's 4G plans are a positive step, but need to be enforced to prevent further delays.

"We wanted to see rural areas get 4G first, but 2017 is a good timescale," she said. "But government deadlines can slip, so it's crucial that Ofcom holds mobile operators to that deadline.

Lee also points out that, while 98% coverage is a vast improvement on the current situation, some citizens could still be left unaccounted for. "The 2% non-delivery is an issue," she says. "It's disappointing to see this 2% not being addressed, or even acknowledged."

It's understandable that there would be some scepticism about 4G in rural communities. After all, it's been approximately 11 years since 3G launched in the UK, and large swathes of the country still can't get any access to mobile broadband.

Sooner than we think

But a source close to a major mobile operator told us that 4G coverage isn't going to be a problem. In fact, if all goes to plan, 4G services could be available to 98% of the country by 2015 - two years earlier than Ofcom's predicted timescale.

When operators bid for 3G spectrum back in 2001, each had to be responsible for its own infrastructure. This delayed, and in some cases, limited coverage as the infrastructure had to be developed, and more importantly, paid for. As a rule, companies are reluctant to extend their infrastructure to remote areas, where there aren't enough customers to recoup their investment.

But with 4G, things should be different. Companies are now sharing infrastructure, and permitted to do so. Three, for example, is sharing masts with Orange and T-Mobile, and Vodafone and O2 are also sharing. That makes it much easier and much cheaper to roll out new services to customers - even in remote areas. As our source put it:

"Ofcom has learned from its mistakes."

So the wait goes on for next generation mobile broadband, but there's also a palpable sense of relief. There have been enough delays, and enough arguments, and the country needs to get 4G services going before it falls out of step with the rest of the world's technological pace.

Bob Warner, chairman of the Communications Consumer Panel, sums up the general feeling: "Consumers in the UK have been waiting for some time for the benefits from 4G. We now call on Ofcom and the operators to deliver this without further delay."

In other words, it's about ruddy time. Now get on with it.

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