Cutting Room: Ofcom 4G ruling good for consumers


EE may have been given a headstart with its roll-out of 4G in the UK, but this will no doubt spur its rivals into action, who can learn from any errors made

So Everything Everywhere (EE) has finally won its fight to be allowed to launch 4G spectrum ahead of its rivals.

Ofcom’s decision is likely to have some impact on competition, but what impact is difficult to predict.

More importantly for Ofcom, the potential impact on competition of an early EE LTE roll-out is clearly worth the risk when weighed against its primary responsibility for protecting the interests of consumers.

Because whatever the merits of EE’s case for rolling out 4G, there is little doubt it will spur the rest of the market to accelerate their plans for 4G.

The network sharing tie-up between Vodafone and O2 should put both operators in a better position to build a network, and EE’s head start will hopefully light a fire under those plans.

Three is already reportedly preparing to buy the 1,800MHz spectrum EE is being forced to sell, and with its heavy focus on data, it seems likely the firm will be at least as aggressive as any of its larger competitors in building out a 4G network.

Those EE rivals won’t be happy about playing catch-up, but it will at least force them to go hell for leather in making LTE available.

It might not be fair, but Ofcom’s decision will push the whole industry to roll out 4G as quickly as possible.

That may not make the operators happy, but it might just ensure the UK gets the next-generation network it deserves sooner rather than later.

With much of the work already done to make the EE network LTE-ready, it’s likely T-Mobile and Orange customers with compatible terminals will be able to connect to LTE services before Christmas.

Unsurprisingly, given the sensitivity shown by operators over spectrum, rival networks are spitting feathers and regard the decision as giving EE an unfair advantage that will distort competition in what is likely to be the biggest change in the mobile market in the past two decades.

They are right to be furious. The decision to give EE the chance to offer LTE services six months or more ahead of its competition will establish EE, in the minds of consumers, as the most advanced network. It will inevitably milk being able to offer LTE services for all it is worth in marketing over the next year.

While the name of the new brand has not yet been revealed, the fact that ‘Everything Everywhere 4G’ has been legally protected as a trademark suggests the network regards LTE network as key to its future image.

It seems likely the T-Mobile and Orange brands will disappear as the user base migrates to 4G over the next few years.

A marketing push has a good chance of scooping up valuable early adopters who will be desperate for an LTE device. It will also be a compelling draw for attracting new and upgrading customers over the Christmas period.

But there are limits to how much of an advantage the operator will get from the launch of 4G. Being first to market makes EE the guinea pig in testing the pitfalls and challenges of introducing the technology to a new market.

The UK is expected to have an easier time rolling out its 4G network than countries quicker off the mark.

Just as the UK industry as a whole will have learned lessons from 4G roll-out elsewhere, so EE’s angry competitors will be able to learn from its errors as it navigates the peculiarities of bringing LTE to the UK.