To say Everything Everywhere's 4GBritain campaign, which Orange and T-Mobile's parent company launched yesterday, caused a shitstorm is a bit of an understatement. We've since had representatives from every major network on the phone, giving their views on why the campaign, which aims to raise awareness of 4G and hurry it along for you and I, is as good as a land-grab. To find out more, I spoke to Everything Everywhere's CEO Olaf Swantee on the phone, as he sat in the back of a cab and chuckled at his rivals' outrage.
As should be obvious in yesterday's earlier article about the campaign, Everything Everywhere has invoked the wrath at many a network, but none more so than Vodafone. A spokesperson told us that they (along with the other rivals) were only approached late last week to join Everything Everywhere's campaign, hardly giving them fair notice to mull over the finer details.
To label the last couple of years of 4G developments as a soap-opera worthy of ITV is somewhat of a Daily Mail headline, but it's beginning to look that way for all parties involved.
Vodafone (and O2, and Three)'s worries are obvious: with Everything Everywhere owning 83 per cent of the 1800MHz spectrum, there's a very real threat that it will have the monopoly on 4G in the UK, and likely for many years. Swantee countered that it still has to divest "a big chunk of 1800MHz for the sale to one of the other operators, or to a competitor. The whole debate over who owns what is not part of it."
Something O2 and Vodafone, who run the real risk of being squeezed out of the 4G race, would likely not agree with, especially given Everything Everywhere won't be forced to hand over 1800MHz spectrum until the Ofcom auction later this year. And even then, it won't be available until at least September 2013.
Another point worth raising is that Three is set to benefit from being a network of smaller stature, and will likely receive favouritism from Ofcom during the spectrum auction, meaning O2 or Vodafone run the risk of missing out on the 1800MHz spectrum pie.
When asked about Everything Everywhere's ulterior motives with the 4GBritain campaign, Swantee expounded: "I have 27 million customers on my network. I want to innovate and make sure they get 4G as soon as possible," adding later in the conversation that "since we merged [Orange and T-Mobile, to become Everything Everywhere], and became the number one operator in the market, we see it as our duty to serve the country."
As Swantee told the BBC in an interview with their technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, the Dutchman is not a fan of litigation, describing his surprise at "how much litigation goes on in this industry."
While T-Mobile's actions back in 2008 when it legally blocked Ofcom's attempts to auction some of the spectrum for 4G may now be viewed as ironic given its new parent-company is decrying these lawsuits four years later, Swantee pointed out that when Vodafone and O2 requested to liberalise their own spectrum for 3G last year, Everything Everywhere didn't throw its legal team at them. Though perhaps it was aware its cries of anti-competition would fall flat, given every operator now offers 3G services, and because Swantee's team knew Everything Everywhere had the majority of the 1800MHz spectrum.
In fact, Swantee is now claiming that "my competition on 900MHz [Vodafone and O2] could request that 4G be hosted on their networks," and urges them to "liberalise" that spectrum like they did last year for 3G usage. Which is all well and good, until you remember that there aren't many devices compatible with 4G on that band, meaning it would be like offering free sandwiches to a bunch of sewn-up mouths.
Instead, he wishes that the industry would consider that "the whole issue of 4G is not just about making airwaves available...what is important is that we get it." [Emphasis Swantee's.]
Something his competitors may or may not agree with.
Despite Swantee reiterating that "I really am not a fan of using lawyers in this whole process," when asked whether it was true Everything Everywhere had to threaten legal action against The Guardian, after the paper questioned the company's boasts that they had Jonathan Ross and Stephen Fry's support for the 4GBritain campaign, he confirmed that his team did suggest taking legal action, against claims the paper was making about the campaign.
When questioned over the inaccuracies, Swantee told me he took umbrage at The Guardian originally questioning the celebrities' support of the campaign, telling me "the article was absolutely wrong. Was absolutely incorrect," adding that he can "confirm that we spoke to Jonathan Ross and and Stephen Fry last week, and they would like to see new technologies such as 4G in the UK, as soon as possible," recommending that I "tweet in, or send them an SMS" to confirm that assertion with them.
Let me tell you: If I had Ross or Fry's phone numbers, I most certainly wouldn't be sat in the Giz UK hot-seat. I'd naturally be in a smoking jacket with Mr Fry, discussing the finer points of Sartre, or trying to superglue broken-off limbs in Ross's action-figurines' display cabinet.
Pressing Swantee about The Guardian's skepticism on the nature of the celebrities' roles in the campaign further, I sought confirmation that that was the only section of The Guardian's article that he disagreed with. (An article that also claimed that Vodafone, O2 and Three had not been approached by Everything Everywhere to join the campaign, and also quoted representatives of those networks as believing the 4GBritain campaign "looks like a lobbying effort set up to give [Everything Everywhere] an unfair competitive advantage," and "a potential monopoly position.")
To which he replied that "it was quite important, because that was the whole...I mean, I didn't even read the whole article. But that was the context and content of the article," before urging me to speak to his PR team for more details.
After we spoke to a source close to the situation, it appears that The Guardian was initially accusing Everything Everywhere of being misleading when approaching the 4GBritain campaign partners, and that's why legal action had been threatened. Either realising its mistake, or crumbling in the face of the company's legal might, The Guardian updated its story. Meanwhile, it looks as though Swantee hadn't realised the issue of whether the celebrities were involved or not wasn't The Guardian's only angle, here.
While all of this isn't so pertinent to you, our readers, it's ongoing evidence of the ever-murkier waters surrounding the 4G field we all long to play in.
It may not look likely we'll ever see Ross or Fry foaming at the mouth over the benefits of 4G via the medium of TV (you can see Gizmodo UK doing just that in our video review of O2's London 4G trials here), but instead Swantee felt it was important to get their support "as they are important individuals here in the UK society," and people are interested in their views "about new technologies such as 4G."
Perhaps the fatigued tech industry would've cared more for Fry's opinion in 2007, when a celebrity writing about a new phone launch was more of a novelty back then -- but unfortunately, you just can't argue against the influence a few celebrities can wield in helping push 4G closer to reality, by helping to educate the non-techy masses via marketing campaigns, or by making the government sit up and take notice of the UK's extraordinary tardiness compared to many parts of the world.
However fascinating industry gossip may be, ultimately we only care about you, our readers, and about securing these faster 4G data speeds as quickly as possible. After all, that's the reason Gizmodo UK and its sister-sites TechRadar and T3 are supporting the 4GBritain campaign: we'd support any move to bring 4G to the market ASAP, and for our readers to receive a better service than they are currently getting.
Unfortunately, it's very possible that 4G will be too expensive for many of us, and if Everything Everywhere succeeds in launching its 4G network prior to Ofcom's spectrum auction later this year (which would see the roll-out on the remaining networks around 2014 - 2015), there's a very real danger that whatever price its consumer brands Orange and T-Mobile whack on the service, the rest of the industry may just replicate them.
Reminding me of his 27 million customer-base yet again, Swantee said "we will price it to really encourage people to adopt it quickly." Unfortunately my question of what he thought was a fair price ("£50? Would YOU pay £50 a month for 4G?") was artfully dodged.
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