The claim

“If the Conservative-led government had got its act together and held the 4G auction when planned, millions of people would already be enjoying the benefits of 4G.”
Helen Goodman MP, 30 October 2012

The background

The launch of the UK’s first 4G mobile network was greeted with cautious optimism in many quarters today, but not in the headquarters of the Labour Party.

The superfast broadband technology could revolutionise the way we work and play, promising download speeds many times faster than current limits. But it will only be available initially to customers of the operator EE who live in Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Sheffield or Southampton.

Labour says this piecemeal introduction of 4G years after its arrival in other countries is a damning indictment of the government.

Helen Goodman, shadow media and communications minister, said: “If the Conservative-led government had got its act together and held the 4G auction when planned, millions of people would already be enjoying the benefits of 4G.

“Instead, most of the population will still have to wait months to get access to the technology.”

Is the launch of 4G another example of government incompetence?

The analysis

It’s true that the UK is lagging behind other countries in getting access to 4G. We’re years behind Sweden, Norway, Germany and the US. Why?

Ofcom, the regulator that issues licences for broadcasters to use chunks of the radio frequency spectrum, first started talking about a sell-off of airspace suitable for 4G back in 2006.

An auction of the 2.6GHz spectrum was first planned for 2008, under the last government, but the idea was scuppered when O2 and T-Mobile launched a legal challenge.

Over the next three years Vodafone, Everything Everywhere (the operator of Orange and T-Mobile in the UK), BT and O2 all threatened to sue at different times, saying various designs of auction unfairly favoured their rivals.

In November 2010 Ofcom promised that an auction of the 2.6Ghz and 800Mhz spectrum would finally go ahead in spring this year. But complaints and threats of legal action from the operators meant the deadline slipped.

Some industry insiders were surprised by the terms of the current deal, which gives EE a clear advantage over its rivals by allowing the company to launch 4G on its existing networks, ahead of the auction.

More threats of litigation were expected, but an agreement was finally brokered, reported only after “crunch talks” between the phone companies and ministers at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

All of this suggests that it is the mobile phone operators, not Ofcom or the government, who are responsible for much of the delay.

In any event, Labour’s record on speeding up the process was hardly exemplary.

And it was the last government that effectively established the timetable for the widespread roll-out of 4G when it fixed the timing of the switchover to digital TV.

Eight digital TV channels take up the same amount of spectrum as one analogue TV channel, so the change to digital freed up the space which will now be handed over to the mobile phone companies.

When the last government set the switchover timetable for 2008 to 2012, it effectively ordained that there would be no major 4G rollout until this year.

The verdict

It’s clear that there’s a lot at stake in 4G. Philip Bates from the leading telecoms consultancy Analysys Mason told us not to be fooled by reports downplaying the initial performance of 4G.

“You won’t necessarily see a big improvement from using the first 4G service, but 4G is right at the beginning of its life cycle and there is a lot more potential for speed to increase in the future.

“And the big hope is that broadband coverage extends to other places that have so far missed out – 4G could work better both in far-flung rural areas and in heavily built-up areas.”

He quoted research by Capital Economics which predicts a boost to the UK economy of around £75bn over a decade.

Then of course there’s the windfall from the auction itself, which is likely to bring in £2-4bn to the exchequer. The political argument about what to spend the money on has already begun.

Could we have got that much-needed cash sooner if the auction had not been put back again and again? Probably, but it’s difficult to see how Labour can pin the blame on Ofcom or on the government.

The mobile phone operators have shown themselves to be enthusiastic litigants in the past, and if Ofcom had pushed ahead with an unpopular design of auction despite the threats, it could have led to years of legal wrangling.

Labour appear to be on shaky ground if they want to use the saga of 4G for political point-scoring.

By Patrick Worrall