What the 4G auction means for you: which networks won and lost?

20th Feb 2013 | 17:59

What the 4G auction means for you: which networks won and lost?

Which will be the best 4G network?

With the notion of not only 4G on the cards, but also talk of 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum being bandied about, it can get confusing very quickly – even the networks themselves have had trouble picking through the bids to see how their rivals have done.

But in a nutshell, the main technology you should care about within the 4G allocation is the frequencies on offer: 800MHz, 1800MHz and 2.6GHz are the three main areas and all have different characteristics in delivering data to your mobile, tablet or dongle.

800MHz was the most sought-after during the auction, simply because it travels so far and so well. This means that networks can deploy long range 4G networks that can carry everything from HD voice to high speed data, and can really help solve the issue of getting broadband to those who currently are devoid of the technology.

1800MHz is the frequency that EE has been using to provide the UK's first 4G network, and it's designed to offer a balance between coverage and speed, something that is hugely important when you're trying to get people to take up a new (and costly) service.

Network coverage

And finally: 2.6GHz (or 2600MHz if you're being specific) is the signal that's best for inner cities – think of it as a firework with a turbo-charged boost that fizzles out over long distances. This means it's great for short ranges with loads of people connecting at once rather than a few houses across the moors, which is why it's perplexing as to why some networks have eschewed it.

So who has won out of the auction? Let's run down what going to be happening network by network:


Dubbed the 'winners' of the auction by some, ol' Big Red has got the most wide-ranging spectrum from the auction – and across all frequencies too, so it can deploy 4G in rural areas and in big cities.

It's got twice the amount of spectrum in the 800MHz band and shedloads at 2.6GHz, which means not only can it be one of the best to serve the outlying areas, but it will also have the power to go big in the cities too – plus it's also nabbed some frequency to improve its service efficiency too, resulting in cost savings.

The network wants to 'do an EE' and liberalise some of its own spectrum for 4G as well at the 1800MHz range, so despite paying close to a quarter of a billion pounds, the 4G future looks strong in this one.

What the network said:

"We've secured the low frequency mobile phone spectrum that will support the launch of our ultra-fast 4G service later this year. It will enable us to deliver services where people really want it, especially indoors. This is great news for our customers. The next generation of mobile internet services will bring real benefits to both consumers and businesses."


Much was made of Three's impending lack of 800MHz spectrum – it was widely expected that the network was going to have to stick with 2.6GHz and miss out on being a larger provider.

As the winning "fourth national wholesaler", Three won the spectrum set aside to ensure it wasn't all nabbed by EE, Vodafone and O2. Word is that EE was going to be sucking up the 800MHz allocation, this leaving Three high and dry, but as it turns out, the numerical network prevailed.

It has half the rural capacity of Vodafone, and doesn't have anything at the 2.6GHz level, but don't forget Three bought spectrum from EE as part of the deal to let the Orange and T-Mobile merger launch 4G early, so come October this year we'll be seeing 4G on 800MHz, 1800MHz and also high speed 3G at the 2100MHz level to make sure that its coverage is high.

Given it only paid £225m for the privilege (and an undisclosed amount from EE) Three looks to have done well for the deal, and you'll be able to connect your mobile in a variety of ways and cheaply too; Three isn't hiking its prices when 4G launches, which is ace.

What the network said:

"We have more than doubled our spectrum holdings in the past 12-months thanks to spectrum acquired at auction and outside the auction process. Doubling our capacity allows us to continue our growth with significant headroom to increase our current base of over 8m customers.

"Consumer appetite for enjoying the internet via mobile devices continues to grow, playing to our strengths. With a significantly increased spectrum holding we will continue to be the competitive force in the UK mobile market,"


Another big hitter in the auction, EE was surprisingly active for a brand that's already throwing 4G onto the market in a big way. What's MORE surprising is the fact it didn't go for the rural-powering 800MHz band as strongly as its rivals - it only has half the spectrum of Vodafone.

Sources tell us that this will allow it to offer a more wide coverage plan, and will allow things like being able to offer voice over LTE, which means rural areas can do useful things like, you know, talk to other people far away. However, this does raise concerns long term when the networks are required to carry more and more data and it won't have the bandwidth to keep up.


It's worth noting here that this doesn't mean the network won't be able to sort that out though, as Ofcom will allow trading of spectrum to happen now the auction is nearly done and dusted.

So in essence it seems EE is a good bet for the medium term, not least because it's already got a strong network infrastructure in place for actually deploying said spectrum, and in the cities it will supercharge its powers with a veritable glut of 2.6GHz frequency - in fact, it's nabbed the most out of any network in the race so will have a strong play going forward.

What the network said

"EE is extremely pleased with the outcome of the spectrum auction. Coupled with our existing 1800MHz 4G network, it consolidates our position as the most advanced, largest and most capable 4G operator in the UK.

"The acquisition of low and high frequency spectrum allows us to boost our superfast data services and coverage - indoors and outdoors, in cities and the countryside.

"This result means that we are perfectly placed to meet future data capacity demands - further enhancing the superfast 4G services we already offer the UK's consumers and businesses."


The effervescent network has sprung something of a surprise by only winning a portion of the 800MHz spectrum, and completely eschewing the 2.6GHz area. Word is that it's simply not cost-effective to be bidding for the higher frequency when it can fill that gap with Wi-Fi hotspots in the cities, which seems like a bold move when it's already spent £550m on nabbing the lower-end spectrum.

As part of that deal, O2 has got a coverage obligation, which means it will have to make sure that it reaches the widest amount of the country (including indoor coverage). This could have a knock on positive effect for Vodafone too, as the two networks share sites to help lower the cost of extending out their coverage across the UK.

Of course, O2 will be looking to leverage its existing spectrum to make sure it can offer the widest range of 4G possible, but given its already been liberalising its own 2G to help bring more 3G coverage to its customers, that space is getting pretty tight.

What the network said

"Today, Telefónica has made a significant investment in next-generation 4G technology for the UK. While 4G will indeed allow for faster data speeds and a more seamless mobile experience, it is our intention to go beyond what has already been offered in the market and give our customers a unique and exclusive range of digital experiences, marking a new generation for the mobile industry.

So what should I do if I want 4G?

Well, if price matter most to you, Three currently has the strongest proposition by promising not to hike up its prices when it deploys 4G – but then again, only it and EE have anything that resembles a 4G price.

It looks like Vodafone has gone the hardest in terms of creating a new 4G network – it will have a strong presence in all areas, as well as being able to streamline its cost base through using 4G at the back end too.

EE has solidified its presence in the 4G area thanks to nabbing spectrum in all the key areas, but questions will be raised long term over whether it will have enough spectrum to serve the country-dwellers if more start getting their data on.

O2 could struggle to supply data to the same levels of the competition in cities if it can't create a truly ubiquitous network that can mitigate the lack of 4G – it will be interesting to see how this network chooses to bring 4G in other ways, as it could end up behind the competition in years to come otherwise.

But the good news is that the end is near – sure, we still have to wait for all the spectrum location to be allocated (which has an effect on efficiency and coverage) but now consumers can look forward to the second half of 2013 when we can really see competitive services being launched that will supercharge your mobile phone, tablet and computer speeds.

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