Lord Stephen Carter’s Digital Britain report left many questions raised by the mobile industry unanswered when it was unveiled last Tuesday (16 June).
Criticisms over the lack of firm decisions have given the ailing Labour party’s opposition further opportunity to gloat at its rival’s failure.
So much so, that even Labour MPs deemed Shadow Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt’s comments on the ‘digital dithering’ report to be fair.
On launch of the report, the Government announced it will hand over responsibility for its pledge to bring a minimum of 2Mbps broadband to all UK households by 2012 to a Network and Procurement Group, which will be set up in September.
Meanwhile, there was talk of potentially bringing mobile coverage to the London Underground in time for the 2012 Olympics, as the Government pledged to improve wireless 3G coverage across the country, including on the railways.
But long debated spectrum issues have still not been resolved. Carter (pictured, far right) had brought in former Ofcom executive Kip Meek in January as he looked to find a solution on spectrum allocation between networks.
Spectrum issues have been dogging Ofcom for a number of years, and operators have applauded Meek (pictured, near right) for accelerating the solution in ‘a short space of time’. However, one operator source adds: ‘We are not there yet. How do we make the report work?’
Ofcom has been asked by the Government to complete an ‘arbitration’ process to decide the final case for the 900MHz spectrum. The technical arbitration must be complete by the end of September, when the regulator will submit its report to the Government. Operators have been asked to fund the process – which many are not happy with – and the first of several meetings took place last Thursday (18 June).
The industry is keen to speed things up. One source says: ‘The industry will have to fund this ongoing arbitration so we want it resolved quickly. Everyone is anxious to sort it out. We need to make investment decisions.’
There is also an air of frustration, with one source highlighting that other European markets have managed to refarm spectrum, so ‘why can’t the UK?’.
Meek’s initial proposal was for 900MHz spectrum holders O2 and Vodafone to be banned from buying any of the 800MHz spectrum available in 2010 when analogue TV is switched off, unless they relinquish some of their current spectrum.
T-Mobile and Orange would not be forced to give up any of their 1800MHz spectrum but would be capped on how much of the 800MHz and 2.6GHz (also available in 2010) they can buy. 3 and all other operators could bid for any of the available spectrum.
The universal service commitment
Universal broadband will be delivered through a mix of fixed and mobile.
However, the report states that ‘in the near term’, mobile may not be able to deliver 2Mbps by 2012, it is more likely to be 1Mbps to 1.5Mbps.
The report adds: ‘For those households in “not” spots or “not a lot” spots, this will be a welcome upgrade.’
Although the report acknowledges the importance of 3G, the Government has asked operators for 99% 3G coverage to be achieved by network sharing, and has converted 3G licences so they are indefinite.
Next generation mobile broadband will be an ‘important component’ of Digital Britain, with coverage and access obligations included in each spectrum licence, and network share deals will be integral to its success.
Not all operators are in agreement with the recommendations.
While O2 and Vodafone are pleased they do not have to surrender any of the valuable 900MHz band, they are also concerned that they cannot acquire any of the 800MHz spectrum.
In addition, the cost of refarming any of the 900MHz they give up could make it ‘not worthwhile’, according to one source. Another source adds: ‘Spectrum is a work in progress and there are still a few issues that need to be ironed out.’
Meanwhile, T-Mobile and Orange believe that not being able to bid for the new spectrum until 2010, or later, will give Vodafone and O2 a ‘competitive advantage’ to roll out their networks sooner.
Orange CEO Tom Alexander says: ‘If Vodafone and O2 [as the current holders of 900MHz spectrum] can re-use that spectrum to provide mobile broadband services before Orange is able to access and use 800MHz spectrum, it will give [them] a critical competitive advantage.’
The key issue for discussion is the ratio for spectrum. Operators are asking whether it will be one unit of spectrum to one, or if it will be assessed by its value to equate to three-for-four, for example, which some feel could also equate to a ‘competitive advantage’.
The Government will also need to assess supply verses demand for mobile broadband. The emphasis of the report is supply, but a recent Ofcom study found that of the 15 million who don’t currently have internet access, 40% wouldn’t have it even if it was free.
The mobile industry could potentially be the key to the Government’s woes. One source says: ‘Mobile has 100% penetration. How do you find a way to emulate in fixed broadband what is happening with mobile?’