Summary:

EE has been able to roll out 4G earlier than its rivals because it’s been allowed to reuse its 2G and 3G spectrum for LTE. Now its rivals look set to get the same opportunity.

A telco base station.

The UK currently has only one major 4G network, but that situation may now change even without an uncoming spectrum auction.

The reason EE has been able to roll out LTE first is that the regulator, Ofcom, gave it permission to ‘refarm’ its existing 2G and 3G spectrum for the super-fast new breed of mobile broadband. Its rivals are now bidding alongside EE for newly-freed-up spectrum in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands, which will allow them to deploy 4G networks around the middle of this year.

But that’s not good enough, apparently. On Friday, Ofcom said it was responding to complaints from Vodafone and Three in which those carriers said they also wanted to be able to refarm their existing 2G and 3G spectrum. Telefonica (O2) and Vodafone have also asked to be allowed to turn up the power on their 2G base stations for 3G use.

Ofcom already has to allow all this due to a directive from the European Commission, but until now it’s been granting ‘liberalization’ licenses on a case-by-case basis. If the consultation launched today (PDF warning) doesn’t run into big difficulties – and the operators’ rare unity suggests it won’t – this will change very soon.

According to Ofcom, the proposed changes will “align the permitted technologies across all mobile spectrum licences, including the existing licences at 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2100MHz and the licences to be awarded by auction in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands”.

“This will meet a long standing objective to liberalise all mobile licences so that there are no regulatory barriers to the deployment of the latest available mobile technology,” the regulator said.

It will be interesting to see how this affects the bidding in the spectrum auction. The consultation closes on 29 March, by which time that auction process should be over with.

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