Ofcom is rethinking its plans for a next-generation 4G mobile phone network. The UK's telecoms regulator wants to cover at least 98 per cent of the population and make space for smaller local 4G networks.
It wants to promote competition between the phone networks to provide 4G to customers, to try and clear the current stumbling block of legal squabbling between the networks that could hold things up until 2015.
Ofcom plans to auction off the 800MHz airwaves freed up by the shutting down of analogue telly this year. Three and Everything Everywhere -- the smallest and largest networks, respectively -- will no longer be reserved a chunk of those airwaves. But special conditions will be attached to the 800MHz licenses, either a requirement to cover 98 per cent of the population; or Ofcom's preferred option, which would require one of the licensees to ensure their 4G network was as big as their 2G network.
Lower spectrum bands such as the 800MHz band are coveted by the networks, because they need fewer masts to cover a greater distance than higher spectrum radio waves, which can't travel as far.
One of the conditions imposed on the merger between T-Mobile and Orange to form Everything Everywhere is that it sells off some of its 1,800MHz spectrum. With those airwaves freed up too, there's more opportunity for all the networks to get a fair slice of the 4G pie.
4G for farmers
Networks expanding into poorly served areas or rural 'notspots' with no broadband at all would benefit from a government pledge of £150m to get farmers on the web. Trials of 4G are currently beng held in rural areas including Cornwall.
Ofcom also suggests reserving some of the 2.6GHz band for small, local providers such as university campuses or hospitals.
4G networks will deliver connection speeds as fast as 100Mbps, leaving current 3G web surfing in the dust. That'll make it a much more attractive proposition to carry out intensive tasks like streaming music from Spotify or video from Netflix to your 4G phone and tablet.
Between a rock and an airwave
Matthew Howett, tech analyst at Ovum, is upbeat, telling us, "Ofcom has essentially been stuck between a rock and a hard place. 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.
"Striking a balance was never going to be easy. The set of proposals now on the table appear to leave everyone with something to be optimistic about, but at the same time requires compromises to be made. Perhaps Ofcom have got it right?"
In theory, 4G could be offering fast web surfing in rural areas sooner than upgraded broadband, because it uses phone masts rather than requiring fiddly fibre-optic cables to be laid.