There’s playing hard to get, and then there’s Ofcom and LTE. After a seemingly endless period of delays, the UK regulator has finally announced that it has set a date for the auction of spectrum for 4G services – and that date, according to the Ofcom release is, – “as soon as possible”. The only actual date given is 11 September 2012, which is when consultation on the legal document that outlines the auction rules will close. (Yes, more consultations). After that Ofcom ‘expects’ the auction process to be start before the end of the year with the actual bidding process will take place is early 2012.

Ofcom said it expects the networks to start rolling out from mid-2013 with services live later in the year. So it could be a full year before consumers will actually be using LTE in the UK using this new spectrum. This seems like a long, long wait when the US has been up and running with LTE in a major way since Verizon launched services in December 2010. Across Verizon, AT&T, Metro PCS and U.S. Cellular, the USA now has around 15 million active LTE subscribers. Let’s not forget our friends in Korea – 4G adoption there has already reached 17% of the current mobile user base.

While the US and other parts of the world are clearly taking the lead for LTE, the consensus is that the UK is lagging the rest of Europe. However, when you look closely the rest of the continent isn’t too far ahead. Germany has had LTE since Vodafone launched in mid 2011, but according to Informa WCIS stats as of June 2012 only 0.26% of the country is using LTE. Italy and France has some coverage but subscriber numbers are yet to register. Telia Sonera launched the world’s first LTE network in December 2009, but as of June only 1.66% of its subscribers are using LTE. Placed in that context, the UK is not quite in the 4G backwater that some might think.

In fact, one could consider it beneficial coming late to the LTE party. By the middle of next year consumers will be able to benefit from more mature and more affordable LTE devices, due to improved technology and economies of scale. To take one, rather important example, Apple will have plenty of time to produce an iPhone and iPad with LTE chipset suitable for UK use. Even if LTE in the iPhone 5 isn’t ready for the UKs 800 and 2.6GHz frequencies, the next one certainly will be.

There’s also good news in the one of the 800MHz licences will require indoor coverage of 98% by 2017. This is a clever move, in that Ofcom only has to force one operator to do this, and the others will be likely to follow suit in order to keep up for competitive reasons. Ofcom has also given expected coveage figures of caround 98%. This, rather than speed, could in fact be the killer difference over 3G. Just this weekend I was out in the country, and while there was GPRS coverage, anything beyond patient checking of email was out of the question. If you can travel countrywide and always have the expectation of data access, then the revolution will not be televised – it will be streamed live to your smartphone.

Ofcom’s also decided to reserve some spectrum for a fourth operator, which as it points out might not necessarily be Huthison’s 3. Well, that’s a bit exciting. A bit.

If 3 doesn’t win the spectrum, it seems unlikely that it could continue in the long term in the UK and with fixed line providers such as BT, Virgin and even O2, having a nationwide wifi strategy, they could well have an eye on picking up that LTE spectrum.

Of course there’s still a chance that the UK could see LTE by the end of the year. Everything Everywhere has already submitted its application to launch LTE in the UK by the end of the year using refarmed 1800Mhz spectrum. In response to today’s news it’s released a statement to say: “the auction is only one step towards bringing 4G to Britain. Everything Everywhere is committed to bringing 4G to the UK this year, and the next milestone will be the regulator’s response to our request to roll out 4G over our existing 1800MHz spectrum without further delay.”

So once again, we’re left waiting for Ofcom. We have indeed hit a milestone, there are plenty more to hit, before the UK’s LTE story is anywhere near to properly getting going.

The LTE Asia 2012 conference is taking place on the 8-9 September 2012 at the Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. Click here to register your interest.

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