UK offers a shortcut to 4G, but angry Vodafone protests

Britain’s laggardly rollout of 4G data services has been the cause of much consternation among technology insiders, and for good reason: a series of delays mean that mainstream 4G services are at least a year away — putting the country a long way behind its rivals. But now the nation’s regulators think they have found a way to speed things up a little… only to discover that not everybody is happy with the shortcut.

On Tuesday Ofcom gave permission for the UK’s biggest mobile operator, Everything Everywhere, to re-use some of its old spectrum for a limited amount of 4G services instead of waiting for the official 4G spectrum auction early next year. From next month, it said, the company would have the ability to use part of its 1800 MHz range for high speed data services as a prelude to providing more services in the future.

That move — the result of a consultation — will get a limited amount of 4G to customers who are craving it. But it has caused angry reaction from rival operator Vodafone (s VOD), which launched a vociferous attack on the decision.

In a statement saying that it was “frankly shocked” by the regulator’s decision, Vodafone said the fact that the biggest player was being given the nod to start ahead of its rivals would distort the market.

It continued:

“The regulator has shown a careless disregard for the best interests of consumers, businesses and the wider economy through its refusal to properly regard the competitive distortion created by allowing one operator to run services before the ground has been laid for a fully competitive 4G market.

“Ofcom’s timing is particularly bizarre given the reports that Everything Everywhere is currently in discussions to sell some of its spectrum to 3, which Ofcom has previously been at such pains to protect with its over-engineering of the 4G auction.

“This means the balance in the auction will fundamentally change.”

Vodafone has been working with another network, O2, to try and achieve 4G speeds ahead of the official auction, but said that it expected Everything Everywhere to now be encouraged to delay and block the official auction from taking place in order to gain an extra competitive advantage.

It’s particularly painful for Vodafone because one reason that Everything Everywhere has redundant spectrum is because it was formed by the merger of the British operations of Deutsche Telekom’s (s DTE) T-Mobile and France Telecom’s Orange (s FTE) back in 2010. When that was given the green light by regulators, Vodafone had been arguing that redundant spectrum should be released to new bids: instead, it looks like EE is getting to use it for its own benefit.

“The regulator has spent several years refusing to carry out a fair and open auction” added Vodafone in its statement. “Now its decision today has granted the two most vociferous complainants during that entire process a massive incentive to further delay it.”