Britain took a big step towards rolling out 4G on Tuesday, with confirmation that the long-awaited auctions for mobile spectrum will finally take place — but probably not until early next year.
In an announcement, media regulator Ofcom (the UK’s equivalent to the FCC) said the auction will make available some 250 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband — including some that had previously been used to deliver analogue TV. And one of the winners in the auction will have to agree to provide indoor reception for at least 98 percent of Britain’s population by 2017.
Ofcom added that it was ready to go ahead with the auction “as soon as possible”, after a statutory consultation ends in September.
“As soon as possible”, though, seems to mean “not quite yet”:
Ofcom expects the auction process to start before the end of this year, with prospective bidders required formally to apply to take part. Those applications will then be assessed by Ofcom before the bidding phase starts, likely to be in early 2013.
Mobile operators are expected to start rolling out 4G networks using the auctioned spectrum from the middle of 2013, and to start offering 4G services to consumers later that year.
Going by the evidence so far, even that timetable may be ambitious.
Ofcom had originally slated the auction for 2012, but that was delayed after the government found itself trapped in negotiations with the dominant network operators. Further reworking of the plans does not seem to have made it possible for the auction to take place any time this year.
While the slow approach looks like another case of bureaucracy gone bad, much of the blame for the delay should be laid at the door of the operators themselves. The largest players — Vodafone, Telefonica and Everything Everywhere, a joint venture between France Telecom’s Orange and Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile — have voiced serious concerns about the way the bidding process was being put together, as well as arguing over which parts of the spectrum should be available to which operator.
Part of their reticence dates to when the telcos paid more than £22 billion — $35 billion — for the rights to 3G spectrum in 2000. It turned out to be a massive overpayment, which when coupled with the dotcom crash led to a very difficult few years for mobile businesses.
One bright spot is the fact that all these delays before the auction may make rollout faster once it’s happened. Most of the networks have already been putting provisions into place for 4G connectivity ahead of the spectrum sell-off.
But it’s fair to say that Britain is a long way behind mainland Europe, and mainland Europe is a long way behind everywhere else.