U.K. to get LTE network, but most carriers still sidelined

It looks like the U.K. won’t be the last major European country to have LTE. U.K. regulator Ofcom has given Everything Everywhere permission to use its existing 2G spectrum to launch an LTE network this year, long before the regulator holds the 4G auction where the remaining U.K. operators will collect their LTE airwaves.

Ofcom announced its decision in a detailed proposal issued Tuesday (pdf) and gave Everything Everywhere’s competitors until April 17 to register their opposition – which they are almost sure to do. But Ofcom already seems to have reached the conclusion that the proposal will have no negative effects on competition. If it gives the final thumbs up, EE will be free to begin a small-scale launch this year and fill out its footprint in 2013.

EE is a joint venture of France Telecom(s fte) and Deutsche Telekom, combining their Orange and T-Mobile U.K. operations, and that venture has plenty of spectrum to spare. The 1800 MHz band it plans to use for LTE lies in the same band as most European operators’ GSM networks – the equivalent of North American PCS frequencies — but unlike its competitors, EE hasn’t yet filled up licenses with 2G networks.

We’re starting to see this kind of re-farming of spectrum all over the world. In the U.S., Sprint(s s) is using spare PCS airwaves for LTE, while T-Mobile is performing a complete overhaul of its networks, shutting down GSM networks to make room for LTE and more HSPA+ systems. Other European operators are finding an advantage at 1800 MHz as well. 3 Italia will repurpose 1800 MHz to become the first Italian operator to turn up LTE this year.

If EE goes forward with its plans, then Vodafone, O2 and 3 U.K. will be in the lurch. They’re depending on scoring the 2.6 GHz and 800 MHz frequencies that Ofcom is designating for 4G, but the regulator keeps pushing back the auction. It’s now scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2012 but could be delayed even further. Even after carriers get their hands on that spectrum, they will have to wait to use a portion of it. The U.K. is undergoing its own DTV transition, and the 800 MHz frequencies are still tied up in analogue broadcasts, just as 700 MHz airwaves were similarly encumbered in the U.S. until 2009. That means no matter when the auction is scheduled, operators won’t be able to do anything with those frequencies until they’re cleared next year, if not later.