Waiting for 4G: what's taking so long?

4G mobile broadband services are widely available in several countries around the world, including Sweden, USA, Japan and Mongolia, and Germany completed an auction of its 4G spectrum in early 2011.

But in the UK providers aren't likely to get a chance to bid for the parts of the wireless spectrum that can carry 4G signal until late 2012 and it's very doubtful that consumers will be able to use 4G services before well into 2014.

What's taking so long?

That's a difficult question. The short answer is that the UK's networks are digging their heels in.

Rolling out 4G is going to mean massive investment and require problem solving for everyone involved. What the spectrum companies get in Ofcom's auction will define their fortunes for years: no one wants to jump first.

Add in the fact that Ofcom is increasingly under resourced and, as we'll see, it's no wonder the process is so slow.

But before we get into that let's start at the beginning.

What is 4G?

4G, very broadly but very correctly defined, is a faster, more streamlined way to transmit data.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) standard, 4G services should be able to reach 100Mb while the user is moving - in a train, for example - and 1Gb when they're stationary.

Instead of combining 2G for voice and using 3G for data, as they do now, 4G networks should be able to run everything over IPv6. In other words, voice calls can be transmitted online just like Skype and other VoIP services.

In reality, however, no 4G provider is promising that.

In the US, for example, Verizon's 4G service advertises 5-12Mb speeds; in Sweden, Telia's 4G advertises up to 80Mb speeds. Many networks continue to use 2G and 3G in addition to 4G.

The method of transmission doesn't lend itself to a set definition either: the examples above are using Long Term Evolution (LTE) systems but WiMAX has also been called 4G even by the ITU, despite the fact that WiMAX is much slower.

In the UK, the main thing you need to know about 4G right now is that it will be transmitted using the 800MHz and 2.6GHz frequencies which currently go unused.

Pre-4G problems

The capacity crunch

Rolling out 4G is becoming a priority because the UK's networks are facing a capacity crunch.

As of September 2011, smartphones were selling more than feature phones in Western Europe and mobile data use began going through the roof.

In response, mobile networks have increased their reliance on wi-fi and, on the whole, severely restricted the amount of data their customers can use.

Boosting 3G

In September 2010, then, Ofcom gave the go ahead for mobile broadband operators to turn up their 3G signal strength from 62 dBm Equivalent Isotripically Radiated Power (EIRP) to 65 dBm EIRP.

However, turning up the power on 3G wasn't without its complications.

Some expressed concern that signal leakage would affect other wireless coverage such as wireless cameras, health authorities raised concerns and so, surprisingly, did 3G pioneer 3.

As the smallest network, 3 were concerned that they'd get 'swamped' by the more powerful signal, a concern we'll see repeated in the row over 4G.

Trading and upgrading 900MHz spectrum

In an effort to increase capacity without an auction the regulator also reassessed existing spectrum use.

In January 2011, Ofcom said that the 900MHz region of the spectrum, owned exclusively by Telefonica owned O2 and Vodafone because they were the only operators in the UK at the time of its introduction, could be used for 3G as well as 2G services.

By March, O2 had already increased their speeds by 30%.

In June 2011, Ofcom also gave the green light for trading on certain frequencies of wireless spectrum.

By allowing operators to sell off spectrum they own in the 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2100MHz frequencies, Ofcom was trying to help increase the capacity of the mobile networks without having to intervene directly.

Sounds fair but some UK phone networks, including 3G specialist Three, weren't so happy with either decision.

The 3G-dedicated network was angry that other networks had essentially got hotly contested 3G capacity for free and Ofcom's move towards free trading would allow those who have been given access to the public spectrum to make a profit.

In other countries, older spectrums such as this were shared among the operators before offering any new 4G spectrums.

Ofcom did intend to share the existing 900MHz spectrum but O2 and Vodafone started legal action.

Plans were eventually cancelled altogether after T-Mobile and Orange formed Everything Everywhere as this would mean they would benefit the most from the trading.

All in all, even before starting to debate the terms of the 4G auction, many of the UK's networks, and especially Three, felt extremely hard done by.

Spectrum auction: the networks at war

And once Ofcom proposed the rules for the spectrum auction the fur really started to fly.

O2

O2 called plans to stop it acquiring more sub-1GHz spectrum, "a state aid and... illegal under EU law".

O2 would be banned from acquiring more spectrum on that frequency under auction rules which state that at least four operators must own a portion of 1GHz to prevent any one operator having an unmatchable advantage over others.

Ofcom want at least four operators in order to maintain a competitive mobile broadband market.

But O2 argue that the 'spectrum floor' system is predicated on the assumption that the company would otherwise submit strategic bids to gazump other operators but the current auction system won't allow them to do that anyway.

Meanwhile, by creating predestined winners in the auction, it says, Ofcom will effectively devalue the spectrum to the tune of a billion pounds.

Vodafone

Vodafone also refer to as "unsubstantiated and incorrect" Ofcom's assumption that a market with three operators in it wouldn't be competitive.

By October 2011, Vodafone's head was describing 3's behaviour as, "dressing up in short trousers as they run around the playground complaining that they're being bullied by the older boys."

Vodafone were also highly critical of what they saw as Everything Everywhere's special treatment.

Ofcom's spectrum floors assume that Everything Everywhere, as an 1800MHz operator, must acquire sub-1GHz spectrum in order to provide a decent LTE network.

Three

And then there's poor little 3.

The operator entered the market in 2003 by buying up a chunk of the 2.1GHz spectrum which, at the time, made it the UK's very first 3G provider.

Now not only have other operators grabbed a slice of 3G at that frequency but Ofcom has made it possible for operators to deploy 3G on '2G' 900GHz frequencies, devaluing the wireless property the company owns.

"Insufficient weight has been placed" on the reallocation of 2G and the "competitive distortions" it caused, they say.

So, in other words, while O2 claims it won't be able to get hold of enough spectrum in next year's auction, Three are claiming the exact opposite.

Both O2 and Vodafone, they argue, will have too much to possibly allow a competitive market.

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