4G at last


After much wrangling, the UK is to have some 4G mobile coverage at last. Ofcom, the industry regulator, has agreed to a request by Everything Everywhere to use part of its existing spectrum for LTE services.

The operator, which owns the Orange and T-Mobile brands in the UK, will use capacity on its existing, 1800MHz network, to roll out 4G. The company has already been installing transmission equipment, and could start to offer 4G services, based on LTE technology, as soon as September.

The process of reusing spectrum known as "refarming" is controversial. The move will give Everything Everywhere a headstart on rival 4G services from Vodafone and O2, which will have to wait until the much-delayed main 4G spectrum, scheduled for next year. The network 3, meanwhile, has agreed to buy some 1800MHz spectrum from Everything Everywhere, but due to the arcane rules around spectrum deals, 3 might not gain access to it until the second half of 2013.

Predictably, other network operators, especially Vodafone, have cried foul, and it might yet be that Everything Everywhere's accommodation with the regulator is challenged in the courts. But as Morgan Mullooly, analyst at research company Analysis Mason points out, this might only serve to delay the main spectrum auction still further.

In the meantime, though, businesses will be relieved that at least one UK network will have 4G services on offer soon. The UK auction process has been particularly long and drawn out, and other countries, notably the US and Germany, have moved forward with their networks. Apple's iPad 3, for example, is a 4G device but there is currently no 4G service to support it here (and nor will it work on Everything Everywhere's 4G system).

Everything Everywhere has not, as yet, announced any pricing or device support for 4G, although there are rumours that it will launch the service, and possibly a new brand, around the time of the also rumoured of an iPhone 5 launch. But there is a good chance that any new handsets and service plans will come at a premium to current, 3G mobile services.

Over time, though, 4G could work out to be cheaper than 3G, as LTE handles data traffic more efficiently. With the 3G network already constrained from a capacity point of view, adding 4G in busy areas, such as town centres, can only help ease the pressure. And, if LTE lives up to its promise, it may allow the networks to cut data charges, or offer additional services, as 4G comes online.

From a business perspective, though, locking in to an 18-month or two-year 4G contract might not be a good move. It may be that Everything Everywhere will launch multi-frequency 4G devices; manufacturers such as Qualcomm have developed the necessary chipsets already. But being tied to 1800MHz will make it hard to move to Vodafone, O2 or any other provider once the auctions are over and new services launched.

4G might be coming fast, but the smart money says take it slowly.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.