Mobile operators are to blame for the slow rollout of 4G in the UK, not Ofcom, according to communications minister Ed Vaizey.
Speaking at the Future Entertainment Summit in London, Vaizey said that the auction of 4G spectrum is on track for fourth quarter of 2012, but that the spectrum will not be cleared until the end of 2013, adding that the constant threat of legal action is hindering progress.
“Just about every mobile service provider has threatened to sue Ofcom if they get it wrong. If you want to look at the delay, don’t look at Ofcom, don’t look at the government, ask your mobile service provider,” he said.
The 4G auction was originally supposed to take place in 2008, but a legal challenge by T-Mobile and O2, demanding clarification of any refarming of the 2G bandwidth for 3G use, delayed the process.
The auction has since been repeatedly set back, as Ofcom tries to devise a strategy for distributing spectrum without giving any network operator an unfair advantage.
Ofcom's latest consultation document on the 4G spectrum auction, published in January, stated that no 800MHz spectrum will be reserved for the UK's largest network operator Everything Everywhere, because the operator already holds a significant amount of spectrum at 1800MHz, which can also be used for 4G.
Everything Everywhere (the combined entity of Orange and T-Mobile) has now put in a bid to launch 4G services in the 1800MHz band, (currently used for 2G), ahead of the auction later this year, in the hope of stealing a march on competitors.
“Everything Everywhere has no appetite for delaying the spectrum auction, nor any appetite for litigation against Ofcom,” a company spokesperson said. “We haven’t threatened Ofcom with litigation at any stage in this auction process.”
Meanwhile, Vodafone and Telefónica, which owns O2 in the UK, have announced plans to merge parts of their network infrastructure into one national grid, claiming that this will enable them to deliver a nationwide 4G service faster than could be achieved independently.
Ealier this year, Labour's shadow minister for media, Helen Goodman, warned that repeated delays are costing the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds in lost revenue each year. She said the auction could raise between £2 billion and £4 billion in capital, and generate about £300 million a year in licence fees.
Vaizey also used his keynote at the Future Entertainment Summit to have a dig at BT and TalkTalk, which lost their court appeal against the Digital Economy Act in March, meaning that they will have to send warning letters to customers suspected of illegal file-sharing.
“I thought it was unfortunate that BT and TalkTalk sued the government over it instead of putting in place what was needed,” said Vaizey. “It will be interesting to see, now that BT is a content provider on quite a big scale, whether it becomes more of an ally.”
He reinforced the government's position on internet piracy, claiming that everyone has the right to make money from what they create, but admitted that site blocking – as in the case of The Pirate Bay – was not a comprehensive solution.
“What we want with our attack on intellectual property theft is to make it much more difficult for the casual consumer to come across these sites,” he said.