Telecoms peace deal brings 4G to Britain

BRITAIN’S four major mobile companies will all be able to offer high-speed mobile internet networks from as soon as next summer, after government-brokered talks between broadcasting regulator Ofcom and the operators last night moved forward the date that fourth-generation (4G) airwaves will be cleared for use.

Culture secretary Maria Miller brought together the heads of Vodafone, O2, Three and EE – the parent company of Orange and T-Mobile – to agree to Ofcom’s plans to open up 4G airwaves in May, five months earlier than previously proposed.

The agreement brings to an end the years of legal wrangling that have delayed the rollout of high-speed mobile internet in the UK, and will reduce the headstart enjoyed by EE – which will launch a 4G network in the coming weeks after its own airwaves were specially cleared for use.

Ofcom will auction off four sections of mobile spectrum at the 800 MHz frequency, which has become available following the switch-off of analogue TV signals, at the end of the year. The sections are set to go to the four major operators, with 4G services switched on next June or July after testing.

However, few phones currently on the market will be able to take advantage of the new services. Most handsets are not equipped with the technology to take advantage of 4G at all, while others – including Apple’s iPhone 5 – can run on EE’s 1800 MHz network, but not the new frequency that was the subject of yesterday’s peace talks.

Flagship devices from Nokia and Samsung will, however, be able to access 4G services, with 800 MHz compatibility expected to become an industry standard in the coming years.

4G networks will reach internet speeds up to 10 times those of 3G connections, allowing faster downloads and video streaming.

“Delivering 4G quickly is a key part of our economic growth strategy,” Miller said yesterday, claiming 4G services “will boost the UK’s economy by £2-3bn”. The auction of the spectrum, carried out by Ofcom, is expected to raise up to £4bn for the Treasury.

The mobile companies are believed to have arrived at the accord with minimal difficulty last night, although O2’s chief executive Ronan Dunne criticised Ofcom over delays to the rollout, which have given EE its headstart. Dunne said: “The regulator has failed to provide a level playing field for 4G”.

4G ROLL-OUT IN BRIEF

■ Ofcom will auction off four lots of 4G-cleared 800 MHz frequency in late 2012.

■ The networks will be cleared for use in May, with 4G going live in June or July.

■ EE will launch 4G this year – its 1800 MHz network was cleared in August.

■ EE’s headstart extends to the iPhone 5, which works on 1800 MHz but not 800.

■ Few current handsets are 4G-ready, but more are set to be so in future.