Orange and T-Mobile are confident they will be able to launch 4G mobile services in the UK this year, despite fierce opposition from rival operators who don't want them getting a 4G head start.
The launch of 4G services in the UK has been long delayed thanks to spectrum squabbles as operators seek to protect their existing businesses and jockey for the choicest positions in the 4G world order.
But Everything Everywhere -- the parent company of Orange and T-Mobile, which are conjoined in a UK joint venture -- believes it will get the green light from Ofcom to reuse its 2G spectrum for 4G services. This would mean that instead of having to wait for next year's spectrum auction before launching 4G, Everything Everywhere could get faster speeds on the go this year.
Dave Salem, director of network strategy, architecture and design at Everything Everywhere, described himself as "fairly confident" Ofcom will give the green light for reusing 2G airwaves for 4G. The regulator is due to make a decision this summer.
'No, you can't have 4G'
"I would personally find it very strange for the government to stand up and say 'no, you can't have the next generation of mobile broadband' when they've been absolutely championing broadband rollout for years," said Salem, speaking at a press briefing in London today.
"It's hard to see any reason why [Ofcom won't support 2G reuse]," he added, noting that "when" this permission is granted, Everything Everywhere will be "very supportive of the timelines for the main [spectrum] auction".
Currently the UK is a 4G laggard compared to the US and other countries such as Sweden, which have already rolled out LTE (or Long Term Evolution) networks -- the next generation of mobile technology that is colloquially known as 4G.
Ofcom initially gave the thumbs-up to Everything Everywhere's 2G for 4G plan, but subsequently backpeddled after rival operators O2 and Vodafone objected -- and gave rivals more time to make their complaints heard.
And complain they did. Vodafone's UK chief accused Ofcom of "taking leave of its senses", while O2 went with the more measured line that Ofcom's decision would be "contradictory to its objective of delivering a competitive market environment".
In a nutshell, the objection of Everything Everywhere's rivals is that letting them reuse existing airwaves to launch 4G gives them a head start and creates a de facto monopoly, reducing competition for consumers.
'They've chosen not to champion 4G'
However, Everything Everywhere's Salem claimed Vodafone and O2 have had "opportunities" to reuse their own 2G spectrum -- but "have absolutely chosen not to".
"They've chosen not to champion 4G at this stage. It's a choice, it's a choice," he emphasises. "We have many proof points of how they could have used their existing spectrum they already own today to run a 4G service to the UK. And the 900MHz spectrum they do have actually was ahead of the spectrum we're using in terms of devices, equipment, they just chose not to do it. They've chosen to invest or reuse that spectrum for 3G."
Asked to comment on Everything Everywhere's claim, an O2 spokesperson supplied the following statement: "Everything Everywhere say we can ask to liberalise our own 900 spectrum for 4G but, as they know, there are no devices compatible with 4G on that band. There is so little 900 spectrum in Europe that it doesn't make commercial sense for the manufacturers to build the handsets to support it. And that is not going to change."
Everything Everywhere countered this claim by saying that operators are in the business of creating device ecosystems, for which they need to build and maintain relationships with device makers. Therefore if there are no 4G devices in the 900MHz spectrum band that's O2 and Vodafone's own failing.
"It's about creating an ecosystem," said Tom Bennett, director of network services and devices development. "The chipsets have supported 900MHz for a good year. As an operator you have a relationship with a vendor -- you go to Samsung or HTC and you say, 'Are you going to assemble devices? I'll make it worth your while.' You create the market.
"It's about commitment. You're talking about Telefonica [O2's parent company] and Vodafone, they're not minnows," added Salem.
Bennett said creating a compatible device ecosystem would probably take around nine to 12 months -- and it's something that O2 and Vodafone could have started doing a year ago when the chipsets arrived. "The argument would be as they sat there and looked at their investment programme for 2012 at the turn of last year, why didn't they make that choice then? They could have."
At the time of writing, Vodafone had not responded to a request for comment.
100Mbps? Don't hold your breath
Exactly when this year Everything Everywhere could get a 4G service up and running -- if it does get an Ofcom greenlight next month -- is unclear. While the company wants to be first, it's also keen not to be stung by a '4G isn't as fast as I thought it would be' backlash.
James Hattam, director of network service management, noted that while it could quickly launch what might technically be a 4G service, it wants to ensure it lives up to mobile users' expectations -- which presumably means making time for a lot of carefully worded marketing material to prepare the ground ahead of the launch.
In December last year, Everything Everywhere kicked off a £1.5bn, three-year network investment programme aimed at refreshing ageing network kit -- some of which was as long in the telecoms tooth as 18 years old. Making this infrastructure '4G ready' was a priority, said Hattam.
"We have a very, very quick activation path of 4G," he said. "Every time we touch the network we're making it 4G ready."
So much for the technical side. But managing customers' expectations is another matter.
"This comes down to setting the right expectations for customers," said Hattam. "There's been quite a bit of hype around 4G, saying it's going to be all singing, all dancing, very fast. We can do some stuff on the radio network to give you a 4G signal and if you had a 4G device you could say 'I've got 4G'.
"But if the experience doesn't live up to your expectations then you're going to be disappointed, so it's about making sure you've got everything else in line with it, before we actively go and do the activation."
4G headline speeds certainly sound misleading -- with those oft mentioned theoretical maximums in the double and even triple figures. In truth, real world speed bumps are likely to be far more modest than 100Mbps.
Everything Everywhere said people on its Cornish 4G trial are achieving speeds indoors of 8Mbps, or 6Mbps towards the edge of a cell site's coverage area. So it's not going to make fixed-line broadband obsolete just yet.
Discussing what to expect from 4G services, Salem said speeds will certainly go up, but mobile devices will also become more interactive -- with slicker access to cloud services and apps, more powerful online gaming and even HD video streaming.
Video apps such as FaceTime, currently restricted to Wi-Fi, should also be able to make the hop to 4G networks.
"Video's driving a lot of the growth that we see at the moment," said Salem. "A lot of the applications, a lot of the Internet is now switching towards video and people want that video on demand. 4G will be the real enabler for bringing that through, and really starting to bring that to life.
"I would like to drive 4G hard," he added. "I think the country's ready for it, the country wants it."
Update 23 May: Vodafone has now provided CNET UK with the following statement: "The regulator has always stressed that competition is in the best interests of consumers and the British economy; a view we share and support. We can't then understand why Ofcom would ignore the overwhelming evidence that giving Everything Everywhere a head start could seriously undermine competition in the UK market.
"Put simply, why is it that the French and German runners should be allowed to start the 4G race whilst the British runner is still chained to the starting blocks? Is that what we can expect at the forthcoming Olympics?
"Vodafone UK strongly believes that a competitive market in 4G services will bring benefits to Britain as a whole and we are very excited about providing them. However, we also believe that it's only when all runners are able to line up together, that the greatest benefits for consumers and the economy can be won."