UK 4G moves closer with Ofcom auction

The universal roll out of 4G in the UK has progressed as seven bidders for the auction of bandwidths have been named by Ofcom.The telecoms regulator said the auction would increase the amount of airwave available for smartphones by more than 75%.

The auction is due to start next month, with licences granted by March and services launching in May and June.

The complete list of bidders is:

  •     Everything Everywhere (EE), which has already been permitted to launch the UK’s first 4G service using existing bandwidth and did so on 30 October
  •     PCCW, a major Hong Kong telecoms conglomerate, operating through its subsidiary HKT
  •     Hutchison Whampoa, another Hong Kong conglomerate and operator of the 3 network
  •     MLL Telecom, a telecom network supplier founded in 1992 and based in Marlow, Buckinghamshire
  •     BT, via its subsidiary “Niche Spectrum Ventures”
  •     Telefonica, the Spanish incumbent telecoms company that owns the O2 network
  •     Vodafone

“New 4G services will stimulate investment, growth and innovation in the UK, and deliver significant benefits to consumers in terms of better, faster and more reliable mobile broadband connections,” said Ed Richards, Ofcom’s chief executive.

Download speeds will initially be at least five to seven times faster than existing 3G networks, Ofcom claimed.

The auction is expected to raise £3.5 billion for government coffers, or 0.2% of the UK’s annual economic output, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility – far less than the £22 billion raised by the auction of 3G bandwidth, which was held at the height of the dotcom bubble in 2000.

The auction is making use of the 800MHz radio spectrum freed up by the switch from analogue to digital television, and also offers an additional higher-frequency 2.6GHz band.

Ultra-high frequencies – between 300MHz and 3GHz – are seen as a sweet-spot for mobile communications, as they combine acceptable signal range with adequate capacity for high data transmission, such as in the case of video streaming.

Lower frequency radio waves travel further and penetrate buildings more easily, and are seen as better suited to rural areas.

The higher frequency band is better able to cope with heavy data transmission, and is seen as preferable in urban areas, although its more restricted reception area means that operators may need to set up more masts, including inside some public buildings.

Mobile services occupy relatively tight bands of the radio spectrum within the 300MHz to 3GHz sweet-spot, meaning that there is plenty of capacity available to support much greater mobile data transmission in future.

However, Ofcom’s ability to provide new bandwidths within the UK is limited by the need to harmonise bandwidths internationally.

Mobile handsets are designed to tune into the same specific frequencies in many different countries. Producing a separate handset just for UK-only frequencies would be more expensive for manufacturers.