EE's role clouds UK LTE peace talks

The UK government is working hard behind the scenes to stave off litigation that might delay the upcoming auction and launch of LTE spectrum, according to a recent Financial Times report, which cited unnamed sources. The talks between government and operators are focused on how to ensure 800 MHz digital dividend spectrum gets cleared more quickly for LTE use, and an industry source told FierceWireless:Europe that the role of EE, formerly known as Everything Everywhere, is the "main sticking point."

EE plans to launch LTE service on its 1800 MHz spectrum.

Under the original scheme, the removal of TV signals from the 800 MHz frequency band will not happen until September 2013, even though the auction of 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum is scheduled for December and January.

MITCO, the company charged with clearing the 800 MHz spectrum will be funded and run by companies that have successfully secured 800 MHz spectrum. However, the source said that since EE is likely to make a successful bid for 800 MHz airwaves there is a fear among its rivals that EE might try and push back the time when operators can use the 800 MHz band for LTE.

Courtesy of last month's controversial ruling by national regulator Ofcom, EE already has an LTE network up and running over its existing 1800 MHz assets. Any delay in clearing the 800 MHz frequency band would give EE a lengthier time-to-market LTE advantage over rival operators.

According to the FT, the UK government brokered a deal among the UK's mobile operators to refrain from any court action while talks continue, but the period of restraint lasts only one month. For its part, EE has agreed not to launch LTE services commercially--the network is currently in testing mode--until the month is up. If no deal is reached by that time, Apple's iPhone 5 may well be the catalyst for immediate court action by EE's main rivals. EE has said it will launch LTE service "in the coming weeks."

EE said in a statment that the company has "no intention to, nor interest in, slowing down the MITCO process. Quite the opposite, we have been and will continue to be fully supportive of MITCO. We support the drive to deploy the spectrum as quickly as possible and in a way that causes no issues for consumers."

Analysts noted the advantage EE has over its competitors. "By supporting LTE using the frequencies that EE are deploying their LT network over, EE will effectively have an initial monopoly on sales of the iPhone 5 since customers will only fully benefit from its capabilities if they take it though EE," wrote Ovum analyst Matthew Howett. "For Vodafone and O2, who have spoken out against EE's early 4G launch, this could well be what they were waiting for before launching a legal challenge to Ofcom's decision."

The iPhone 5, which supports EE's 1800 MHz LTE network, will be available in EE stores starting Sept.21, although Vodafone and Telefónica's O2 UK say they will also sell Apple's latest gadget, but for 3G customers only. For the time being, Vodafone's marketing emphasis is on network coverage. Through its proposed network partnership with O2, Vodafone said its indoor 2G and 3G coverage will reach 98 per cent of the population by 2015. By contrast, Vodafone points out that EE's coverage targets--98 per cent of the population by 2014--refer to outdoor coverage only.

For more:
- see this FT article (sub. req.)
- see Ovum comment

Related Articles:
Everything Everywhere rebrands as 'EE' for LTE launch
Ofcom sets UK LTE auction for late 2012, but operators could challenge rules
Everything Everywhere pressures UK regulator for early LTE deployment 
Everything Everywhere pours £1.5B into three-year network upgrade plan

Article updated Sept. 18 with a comment from EE.