In a bid to cut tension between mobile operators in the battle to bring 4G to the UK, communications regulator Ofcom and Culture Secretary Maria Miller are holding peace talks with the networks today that could result in 4G services becoming widely available as early as next May.
Mobile operator EE, formerly known as Everything Everywhere, had been given permission by Ofcom to use its existing 2G spectrum to launch 4G services earlier than its rivals, who face having to wait until a 4G auction in January 2013 to be allocated 4G spectrum.
The BBC reported that today's meeting could mean that the 4G spectrum auction could take place two weeks earlier than scheduled. Ofcom fears that potential legal action from mobile operators O2 and Vodafone could undermine its efforts to allow consumers to access 4G as soon as possible, and a move to bring the auction forward from its current January 2013 date could dissuade the networks from taking legal action.
Technically, EE could have launched 4G services from 11 September this year. But at the launch event held on that day EE did not confirm an exact date for when it would switch its 4G services on, possibly due to conflict between Ofcom and other mobile operators.
In August, Ofcom had said that it would "robustly defend" its position on allowing mobile operator EE to use its 1800MHz spectrum to deliver 4G services after O2 was rumoured to be seeking legal action against Ofcom.
"Allowing the early introduction of 4G services in the UK will deliver significant benefits to consumers. We are ready for any potential litigation of our decision to allow this and we will robustly defend our position if required," an Ofcom spokesperson said at the time.
If a deal is struck today, it could allow EE to announce a 4G launch date – and according to Ofcom it could allow the launch of 4G networks in many places by May or June 2013.
Vodafone's and O2's plans to merge the basic parts of their network infrastructure have been approved today by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and Ofcom.
The plan, initially announced in June, will establish one national grid that will be used to run each operator's independent spectrum – with both companies retaining complete control over their wireless spectrum, networks and customer data and continuing to compete with each other in all products and services.
The move is aimed at helping each operator to compete with EE, which was formed by T-Mobile merging with Orange. The two companies said that the partnership will ensure that 4G mobile services will be rolled out faster than could be achieved independently and up to two years before the anticipated regulatory requirement of 98 per cent population coverage by 2017, proposed by Ofcom.
EE CEO Olaf Swantee had said that more than 20 million people would have access to EE's 4G services by Christmas this year, with 98 per cent of UK's population having access by 2014.