Ofcom plans to ensure that at least 98 percent of the UK has access to 4G technology when the networks are rolled out across the UK.
The regulator made the announcement as part of new a proposal covering the auction of 4G spectrum, released today. This second proposal attempts to solve numerous complaints raised by mobile operators after Ofcom first unveiled its plans in March 2011.
4G networks will use the 800MHz and 2.6GHz radio spectrums to offer faster mobile broadband services, with speeds of 'up to' 100Mbps. The spectrums will also be able to cope with a greater capacity than existing 3G networks. The 800MHz band is currently used for terrestrial TV broadcasts, but the digital switchover means it can now be assigned for mobile broadband use.
As well as stipulating 98 percent coverage, (up from 95 percent in the original draft), Ofcom also wants at least one of the mobile operators that acquires part of the 800MHz spectrum to provide 4G coverage in mobile 'not spot' areas of the UK. This will be achieved using £150m of government investment.
The government investment was announced by Chancellor George Osborne in October last year, to help provide funding for broadband coverage in areas where there is little or no commercial incentive for operators to build infrastructure. Ofcom said these proposals make it more likely that mobile broadband services will be provided in locations where they will be most valued by consumers.
The regulator also revealed it plans to ensure all four of the UK's mobile networks have access to spectrum to provide 4G networks – an issue that the UK's smallest operator Three has campaigned about in the past. The auction is currently scheduled to take place in the second quarter of 2012, meaning it will probably be 2015 before operators can begin rolling out 4G services across the country.
Some spectrum in the 2.6GHz band will be reserved for the delivery of innovative new mobile services for consumers, such as local mobile networks for student campuses, hospitals or commercial offices, which operate on short-range frequencies serving a small area.
Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards, said: "The proposals published today will influence the provision of services to consumers for the next decade and beyond.
"We are proposing a significant enhancement of mobile broadband, extending 4G coverage beyond levels of existing 2G coverage – helping to serve many areas of the UK that have traditionally been underserved by network coverage."
Ofcom has now launched a ten week consultation period during which stakeholders can comment on the second set of proposals. The regulator said it would set out plans for how the auction will take place in summer this year, with the actual auction following in Q4.
The news comes as Everything Everywhere, the combined UK operations of France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom, prepares to start auctioning spectrum in the 1800MHz band – currently used for 3G networks. According to analyst firm Ovum, this could ease demand for spectrum in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands, as 1800MHz can also be used to launch 4G services.
"Ofcom has recognised the attractiveness of the 1800MHz band in that it offers a nice balance between coverage and capacity," said Ovum analyst Matthew Howett. He also said that Ofcom's promise to ensure that all four operators have access to 4g spectrum suggests that it "continues to value Three’s disruptive nature" and wants to in effect guarantee its existence post-auction.
"Ofcom has essentially been stuck between a rock and a hard place," he added. "It wants to award these frequencies as quickly as possible to the benefit of consumers, but also wants to ensure that they do so in a competitive way. The decisions they take now are likely to affect the level of competition in the sector for at least a decade."
Sophie Curtis contributed to this report.