Everyone Everywhere (pun intended) will have heard of Ofcom’s decision to re-enter consultation over the LTE or 4G mobile spectrum allocation. Issued late on Friday afternoon the statement regarding the delay caused by reopening the consultation has already attracted comments re “hiding bad news over the weekend”.
There were 64 responses that included the A to W of stakeholders in the UK (nothing from X, Y or Z). The Association of Train Operating Companies was mainly concerned to ensure that good coverage at high, sustained download speeds is ensured along the whole of the GB mainline rail network. At the other end of the alphabet both the Welsh government and Wiltshire Council wanted better coverage in rural areas with the latter quoting a target figure of 99% of the population.
Straightforward right? At least it sounds like a good idea. The government appears to agree with this because last week HM Treasury announced it would be making available up to £150 million to improve mobile coverage in the UK. “This investment will improve the coverage and quality of mobile services for the 5 to 10 per cent of consumers and businesses that live and work in areas of the UK where existing mobile coverage is poor or non-existent. The Government will aim to extend mobile service coverage to 99 per cent of the UK population.”
Back to the consultation response it is worth examining some of the different camps. It is by looking at the responses that you really begin to see the political and strategic manoeuvring in play.
BT by and large supports Ofcom’s proposals though the company does express concern over the specification and coverage obligations of the proposed 800MHz licence. “We believe that this is an area where Ofcom needs to amend its proposals and to re-examine the options in the context of BDUK activities”. I’m sure there will be cynics out there who will say this is BT trying to protect its monopoly over the provision of broadband services to rural areas.
The Vodafone response, at 90 pages came in at over twice the length of BT (43 pages though I doubt Ofcom measures the weight of a response in terms of the number of pages:) ). VF claims that Ofcom’s proposals are based on four fundamental but unsubstantiated and incorrect assertions:
1 that competition and consumers would be harmed if only three ‘national wholesalers’ were to provide higher quality data services in the future. (Read into this “we would be quite happy if the players were restricted to three – probably the existing largest operators – TD)
2 that Vodafone currently has a near-term route to providing an LTE network (of unrivalled quality) by using its existing holding of sub-1GHz spectrum;
3 that, knowing this, Vodafone could and would bid ‘strategically’ in the upcoming auction to exclude its rivals; and
4 that Everything Everywhere, as an 1800MHz operator, must acquire sub-1GHz spectrum in order that it too can provide a competitive LTE network.
According to VF none of these assertions are borne out by the facts and they therefore suggest the case for the proposed spectrum floors is fatally undermined and should not be pursued further.
VF also maintains that it would not be able to free up its 900MHz spectrum in time for early use for 4G and that EE is in a position to go to market far more quickly with its existing spectrum.
Funnily enough the EE response (a short novella of around 150 pages) says the opposite. EE suggest that the current plans would result in Vodafone and O2 being able to grow their mobile data market shares because their existing UMTS900 deployments together with improvements in HSPDA would allow them to sell at closer to LTE speeds before the LTE network was actually available.
EE wants a the sub 1GHz spectrum to be more evenly distributed – because of existing VF and O2 holdings under the current plans they could well end up with the greater portion of sub1GHz spectrum.
Under the bonnet the subject is complicated or at least is being made to look so but at its heart the issues are simple. It is all about money. As an investor in this market I am in the game to make money too. In this case though Ofcom and HMG need to make sure the balance is right for UK PLC.
It sounds like they are starting to get some of this right with the desire to extended coverage. They do however need to remember that in more than one sense speed is of the essence here. Ofcom maintains that the current delay to the auction will not affect the start date for the LTE rollout. I accept that this is a very important decision to get right but we really can’t afford to lose any more time on this one. It’s taken Ofcom 4 months to decide on this delay.
PS I’m with the Association of Train Operating Companies – I travel up and down to London quite a bit and the mobile coverage along the route is rubbish.