What's Happening With 4G In the UK?

By Sam Gibbs on at

Gloriously fast, high-bandwidth 4G data has finally made it to the capital thanks to O2's LTE trials. Unfortunately it's not here to stay, as it's just a trial, and we're staring down the barrel of a 2013-2014 nationwide launch at the earliest.

It's no secret the UK is significantly behind countries like the US with its 4G roadmap. It's no one person or corporation's fault, so if you're baying for blood I'm afraid there are no specific heads to clamour for. There are a few hurdles that we as a nation have to overcome before we can start to enjoy ubiquitous 'super-fast' wireless broadband though. One of these issues has been the delay and postponement of the '4G auction' by the nation's wireless regulator Ofcom and the UK networks.


4G auction

After a public consultation in 2011, Ofcom received enough 'strongly argued responses' to persuade them to tear-up the current auction rules and shift the original spectrum allocation auction date from early 2012 to late 2012. This has of course put the UK's 4G plans back a tad, but we were already lagging behind compared to the likes of Germany, Italy, Space, and Sweden, who have already completed their 4G spectrum auctions. Although the networks were themselves one of the chief complainants about the initial auction rules, the delay put their 4G plans on ice. Without the spectrum allocation, there's not a lot of point in pushing out infrastructure and the backend to support the high-speed network.


Digital switch-over

One of the reasons for the delay was down to the digital TV switchover schedule, which has been notoriously flexible. What has TV got to do with 4G? Well, the proposed bands that'll be auctioned off to support the 4G network roll-out include the 2.6GHz and 800MHz bands. The 800MHz band has up until now been used to carry analogue TV signals. The analogue TV signal switch-off, which is part of the digital switch-over, has been ear-marked as October 24th 2012. Clearing everyone over to Freeview to free up that highly desirable 800MHz band has been a bit of a trial for the nation, with a lot of resistance to progress encountered in the early stages. Thankfully quite a lot of the country has already switched off analogue broadcasts, but of course you can't start allocating the spectrum and rolling out new services until the entire country is on the same page. You can blame London for this one, because analogue TV will heave its last gasp within the UK in the capital. The 2.6GHz spectrum also had its issues, mainly revolving around inference with, and because of, some older radar systems, which have largely been rectified within the last few years.

Once the digital switch-over has happened and the 4G spectrum auction has been completed, the networks will be free to start upgrading towers, allocating bandwidth and selling juicy 4G contracts.


So where are we at now?

Some of the UK mobile networks have been quite pro-active when it comes to 4G. O2 for instance has trialled and tested 4G in both Basingstoke and Slough, and now London; while Everything Everywhere, the Orange-T-mobile joint venture, recently started conducting trials down in the traditional wireless test-bed that is Cornwall. The other two networks, Three and Vodafone have been suspiciously quiet on the 4G front. We have heard that Vodafone is in-line to commit to 4G within the UK, but we've nary-heard a peep out of Three confirming 4G plans.

The problem for the networks is that the 3G auction, which completed in April 2000, was incredibly costly. A repeat of the 3G auction is certainly not something the networks will be particularly keen on, which contributed to the arguments against the current auction rules, which are now to be changed, resulting in a delay to the auction. Cost may also be one of the reasons that Three, who ended up forking out a considerable sum of money for its 3G allocation -- money that it didn't have a huge amount of -- may be reticent to join in on the 4G bandwagon.


So when will I be able get it?

Unless you're in on our trial with O2, I'm afraid it's not going to be soon. Optimistic estimates stick 4G availability in the UK at late 2013. Realistically, widespread 4G is more likely going to hit in 2014. 4G in the UK does have one advantage and that's that we already have handsets with 4G chipsets in production overseas. All we need therefore is the network in place in our homeland and we won't have to wait for handset technology to catch-up like we did with 3G. We won't really know the schedule until the auction takes place late next year, but rest assured that we'll be covering it in excruciating detail and that when we know, you'll know.

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