Spectrum games are over, Ofcom tells UK MNOs
The UK’s mobile operators, Vodafone and O2 in particular, may have been too clever by half in threatening to litigate their way through the proposed auction for high speed broadband frequencies.
Ofcom CEO Ed Richards told the European Competitive Telecommunications Association (Ecta) regulatory meeting yesterday, “some major companies will have to reflect upon whether they have inadvertently jeopardised the benefits of objective, independent regulation in this area by virtue of their willingness to game the system.”
Richards said he recognised the need for companies to defend their commercial interests and to use the law to do so. But it had been “very disappointing” to see how far the incumbent mobile operators were prepared to “entangle this process in litigation or threats of litigation”.
Richards said that only a few weeks ago, the department of culture, media and sport, which oversees communications policy, had realised “the stance of the operators made it harder for important decisions to be made and implemented”.
This may be unfair; culture minister Jeremy Hunt and communications minister Ed Vaizey are both said almost 18 months ago they hoped the MNOs would not turn to the courts but cooperate with government in creating a vibrant 4G mobile market.
Richards said, “This may well be a consideration as British lawmakers consider their approach to a promised new communications bill for the UK.
“I am sure legislators would be all too willing to accept an argument which returns power in such matters to politicians, in light of the apparent inability of the current model to make timely decisions where the national interest is at stake.”
Richards was speaking ahead of Ofcom’s imminent release of the terms and conditions for the auction of 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum, the so-called 4G frequencies, now delayed until mid-2012. These will permit local operators to introduce high speed mobile broadband services in urban and rural communities.
The threat of litigation and the need to free up 800MHz frequencies has delayed the auction to the point where the UK is now far behind competitor economies such as Germany and France in 4G mobile roll-outs.
While the lack of cheap 4G handsets has minimised the gap up to now, this is less and less the case. It has also dampened projects to explore the use of LTE (Long Term Evolution) as an alternative to copper in local access networks.