3 Italia gives a boost to Europe’s LTE ambitions

Western Europe may be behind North America and East Asia when it comes to rolling out LTE, but in Italy, at least, operators are doing their best to catch up. Hutchinson Whampoa’s 3 Italia unveiled an aggressive LTE rollout plan on Monday in which it will construct a 4G network and have it ready for commercial service by the end of 2012.
3 Italia tapped its traditional mobile-networks supplier Ericsson(s eric) not only for the LTE build but also for an upgrade to its current HSPA network that will allow it to support a theoretical peak speed of 42 Mbps. The LTE systems, however, will far exceed those capabilities. 3 Italia is maxing out the technology’s current potential with a network supporting peaks as high as 100 Mbps. No subscriber would ever experience such raw bandwidth directly, but the more overall capacity available to the network, the faster the rates at which individual devices can connect to it.
3 Italia isn’t alone in its LTE ambitions on the peninsula. The Italian government auctioned off 4G airwaves only in September, but three of the four major Italian operators are already moving aggressively to build next-generation mobile broadband networks. According to TeleGeography, Vodafone Italy(s vod) and Wind Telecomunicazione are both beginning their network builds this year, with large-scale launches scheduled for 2013.
The rest of Western Europe may have to wait a bit a longer since operators in many countries are still waiting for a key missing ingredient: spectrum. France just completed its 4G auctions, though Orange France(s fte) is the only one to confirm an LTE launch, currently scheduled for 2013.  Germany’s auctions closed in 2010, but so far Vodafone is the only operator to get any decent-sized 4G operation off the ground. Many of the remaining big European operators, however, are in a holding pattern while their regulators debate the timing and rules of their own countries’ auctions or wait for the licenses they do own to become viable for a network launch.
The U.K. may wind up being the last European country to move to 4G. Its regulator, Ofcom, has pushed back its auction date to the fourth quarter of 2012, and it could be delayed further still. The progress toward 4G has bogged down so much that the European Commission and Parliament may step in to set an early 2013 auction deadline on member states.
The one region of Europe that’s been ahead of the curve is the Nordic states, which not only distributed their 4G spectrum early but beat even the most aggressive global operators — Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) and Japan’s NTT DoCoMo(s dcm) — to market. TeliaSonera managed to get the first live LTE networks running in Stockholm and Oslo as early as December 2009. But as one industry executive pointed out to me at Mobile World Congress last month, Europe is still largely a 4G wasteland with only pockets of LTE hovering in the north like the aurora borealis. Maybe Italy’s aggressive rollout will help reset the balance.
Europe, however, isn’t the only global region to see LTE delays. At Mobile World Congress, China Mobile(s chl) announced an aggressive rollout of its own variant of 4G, TD-LTE (subscription required), targeting a 200,000-base station network by the end of 2013, but according to PCWorld the Chinese government has other ideas. A key Chinese regulator indicated that it might hold off issuing 4G licenses for another two to three years, which would most definitely muck up China Mobile’s plans.