With news reports of LTE networks popping up all over the place, writing about LTE as a UK-based journalist with a penchant for his iPhone, is something of a frustrating experience. The fact is that the UK will be one of the last major European economies to gain access to a next generation mobile network, with actual deployments unlikely to see light of day before 2013 – and most likely the end of it.
With the cost of roaming still being so prohibitive (another issue that needs addressing), there’s only been one instance when I have properly made use of a 3G network in another country but it emphatically proved to me that mobile broadband in the UK is poor. This was in Israel last summer, where I swapped my O2 SIM in an iPhone 4, for a local one from Cellcom. It was a revelation. Data was fast and responsive, and more like using wifi back home. Back in the UK, the way if generally goes is that if you’re not in a major city, you won’t get 3G, and if you are, you’re hamstrung by poor latency and network congestion. Rubbish. So will LTE be a panacea for this? Well it certainly should be in terms of raw speed, but in terms of coverage I’m not holding my breath it will be much better.
According to a recent report from the GSA there are now 49 LTE networks across 29 countries from the Australia and Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Norway, the Philillipes, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, and yes, Uzbekistan. Hell, even Estonia’s got one. In the US, once a smartphone backwater compared to Europe, Verizon and AT&T customers in many locations can now enjoy fast LTE speeds from smartphones, dongles and mifi units. And over here in London, home of the world’s greatest sectret agent, Dangermouse?
Nada. LTE, LTE everywhere, but for the UK, not a drop to drink.
And will no one think of the poor, soon to be underprivileged Blighty-based iPhone users? After all, it’s a near certainly that come the end of the year, the next iPhone will finally be LTE ready. In fact, it could even be ready for the iPad 3, which could appear on shelves as early as March of April. When the Apple droves upgrade to their next gadgets, UK users will be starting folornly at their new shiny, shiny, calling out despairingly, “Go, Faster, Dammit”.
As a reminder, spectrum auctions are kind of a big deal for governments, as they tend to raise a lot of mullah. Last time round, the UK government pocketed £22.5bn, though this time it’s accepted that it will be nowhere near this.
So why has there been such a delay for the UK auctions? The main reason is that UK auction will sell off spectrum in the 800MHZ and 2.6GHz bands, and the former will only become free once the analogue to digital switch over is completed, which won’t be until the end of 2012.
The problem was compounded in June 2011 when O2 claimed that the spectrum auction was illegal due to ‘spectrum floors’, which would give each of the four UK networks a minimum of 10MHz of spectrum below 1GHz in order to keep the market competitive. O2 points out that this would be a free hand-out to three and would amount to, “state aid and therefore illegal under EU law”. Whatever.
The carrier with most to lose with the delay to the auction was Three. The issue is that it’s running out of spectrum, which is rapidly being used up by its customers for data, a problem compounded by its, admittedly rather desperate, marketing strategy of being the only UK carrier to offer truly unlimited data for most of its packages.
Three’s problem is that while Vodafone, Everything Everywhere and O2 have received permission from Ofcom to refarm some of their existing 2G spectrum to 3G and thus alleviate their data congestion issues, Three has no such spare spectrum to play with. (The clue is in the name, I guess). Thus it sees the delaying tactics from its UK rivals as a cunning and dastardly ploy to squeeze it out of the market – which it quite patently is.
The whole business was recognised described by the Ofcom chief executive last November as prevarication tactic and pointed out that, “When litigation becomes essentially strategic rather than based on objective grounds, and when it has the effect of holding back innovation and hampering growth, it is legitimate to ask whether the overall legislative framework fully supports the public interest in this increasingly vital area”. In other words, the carriers were gaming the system.
The regulator wasn’t doing itself any favours though, as the latest delay to the process was from Ofcom itself, when in October 2011 it said it would need to run a second set of consultation with the carriers due to the significance of the decisions it had to make. This doesn’t instil confidence in a regulator that exists solely to make those sorts of decisions.
There’s some talk that the UK has benefitted that from holding back by seeing the mistakes that other operators might have made in their rollouts but I don’t think that holds much water.
By the time that the first LTE network finally do come online in the UK it’s more likely that we will have suffered years of slow lane mobile speeds, and many millions of pounds lost due to the data bottleneck that’s been imposed on UK business, at a time when the economy could very much do with a boost.
It’s almost as bad as the UK’s train networks, which I have to suffer everyday on the First Capital Connect Line. Oh don’t get me started…