Britain's three main mobile operators and the media regulator Ofcom have reached a crucial truce over much-delayed plans to roll out fourth-generation super-fast mobile broadband, known as 4G.
The bosses of Vodafone, O2 and EE, parent company of Orange and T-Mobile, met yesterday evening for talks with Ofcom at the Department of Culture, brokered by Secretary of State Maria Miller. The phone operators have agreed to plans for 4G to launch sooner than expected in May 2013, after an Ofcom-supervised auction of new airwave spectrum.
It is thought that, as part of the truce, Vodafone and O2 have decided not to challenge EE's controversial plans to launch 4G earlier, this autumn, on some of its existing spectrum.
There have been repeated legal threats over Ofcom's auction and, more recently, its controversial decision to grant EE permission to steal a march on rivals by launching 4G first. But all sides agreed to a legal standstill a month ago in a bid to avoid a full-blown challenge. Since then, Ofcom has been working to appease Vodafone and O2.
The regulator is offering to make available the spectrum sooner than previously planned – by May 2013, rather than October next year – and is promising its much-delayed auction will happen sooner.
Ms Miller said: "By speeding up the delivery of 4G in the UK, the Government is creating enormous opportunities. I am grateful for the efforts of all concerned in bringing forward the 4G timetable."
There has been speculation her department put pressure on Ofcom to move faster.
O2's chief executive Ronan Dunne said: "We're pleased that we've made progress but frustrated that it's taken so long."
The launch of 4G is crucial for Britain's digital economy because it will mean speeds up to 10 times faster than the present 3G service.
3G is becoming outmoded because of soaring mobile internet data usage on smartphones and tablets. The latest smartphones such as Apple's iPhone5 already make use of 4G.
The shadow Chancellor Ed Balls also put 4G high on the political agenda when he told this week's Labour party conference that he wanted to use the potential £4bn windfall from the spectrum auction to fund his spending promises. The 3G auction in 2000 raised more than £20bn but the mobile companies are expected to pay only a fraction of that for 4G.
Ofcom has come under fire for the slow pace of the auction, which has been more than four years in the planning. Other countries such as Italy and Germany have already leapt ahead with their roll-out of 4G.
But those close to Ofcom have insisted that even if the auction had happened sooner, Britain could not launch 4G properly until next year because the spectrum will not be available.
The airwaves have been occupied by existing users, notably the multi-channel TV service Freeview, but they are becoming free following TV's digital switchover. EE is able to roll out its own 4G service this autumn because it owns some 1800 Mhz frequency that is ready to use. Vodafone and O2 plan to use 800Mhz and 2.6Ghz frequency.Reuse content