Lord Carter begins universal broadband negotiations

Communications minister Lord Carter has today summoned all five UK mobile operators into negotiations to resolve a spectrum row that could threaten his universal broadband pledge.

The former Ofcom chief executive was quick to set the pace towards achieving universal broadband coverage by 2010, at speeds of two megabytes per second (Mbps), with the release of his interim Digital Britain report last month.

At the time, Carter suggested that the growing accessibility and popularity of mobile broadband technologies would be key to achieving this goal.

But the UK mobile operators Vodafone and O2 (formerly Cellnet), who own the rights to run 2G GSM services over the older, 900 megahertz (MHz) spectrum, have been reluctant to share it with rivals for this greater good.

Now Carter has called Vodafone and O2 into negotiations with the other three UK operators, to work out how rivals T-Mobile, Orange and 3 can buy some of the 900 MHz spectrum to offer modern, 3G and high-speed packet access (HSPA) mobile broadband services in remote areas.

A roundtable meeting involving the five operators and Kip Meek, another former Ofcom official who now heads up the government's independent advisory panel, the Broadband Stakeholder Group, is scheduled to begin tomorrow to thrash out a compromise.

But the chances of any agreement being reached hangs in the balance, if Vodafone and O2's initial reactions to the plan when it was first mooted by Ofcom over a year ago do not change. The two operators launched a legal challenge against the plans.

Nevertheless, Lord Carter's recent report said that sharing the low-frequency spectrum would support the government's universal broadband pledge by offering an ideal solution for those currently without wired broadband and in remote areas.

As such, Carter said in his interim report that the operators must reach a compromise by April or risk having the government impose one on them. Industry experts have suggested that O2 and Vodafone may be willing to exchange some of their 900MHz spectrum for 1800 MHz spectrum with rivals Orange and T-Mobile.

None of the operators could be reached for comment at the time of writing.

Miya Knights

A 25-year veteran enterprise technology expert, Miya Knights applies her deep understanding of technology gained through her journalism career to both her role as a consultant and as director at Retail Technology Magazine, which she helped shape over the past 17 years. Miya was educated at Oxford University, earning a master’s degree in English.

Her role as a journalist has seen her write for many of the leading technology publishers in the UK such as ITPro, TechWeekEurope, CIO UK, Computer Weekly, and also a number of national newspapers including The Times, Independent, and Financial Times.