Great Britain? I Don't Think So

3:25 PM -- When it comes to knocking heads together and formulating a true broadband strategy for the U.K., the increasingly archaic name "Great Britain" does not apply.

Instead, while countries such as Australia, Norway, Singapore, Sweden (the list goes on) have pushed forward with the introduction of the latest high-speed fixed and mobile broadband technologies and services, the U.K. is stuck with patchy fiber-based plans and an embarrassing deadlock on LTE spectrum allocation that today caused one very senior telecom operator executive to state that he is "worried about U.K. plc."

Speaking at the Wired 2011 conference in London Thursday, Matthew Key, the CEO of Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF)'s recently formed Digital division, and until recently the CEO of Telefónica Europe plc (O2) , said: "I worry about U.K. plc falling behind. We need to make the [LTE spectrum] auctions happen. The technology is available." (See Telefonica Holds Key to Digital Model.)

He also noted that, in terms of getting broadband connections of any kind to rural and other under-served areas in the U.K., that "the economics show that LTE will be a viable alternative [to fixed broadband] for about 15 percent of the U.K. population." (The U.K.'s population is currently about 62 million.)

But LTE's not coming any time soon. Due to bust-ups, legal threats, and political and regulatory weakness, the auction of valuable spectrum that could be used for LTE has just been delayed again and will perhaps start in the fourth quarter of 2012, regulator Ofcom announced earlier this week.

Ofcom doesn't appear to see this holdup as an issue because the spectrum being auctioned will not be available for use by the mobile operators until 2013, "so this step is unlikely to have a material impact on the timeline for the availability of new services to consumers." That seems to be an oversimplification and avoiding the issue that the process looks to be a shambles.

That shambles isn't helped much by talk of potential legal action over the way the auction is handled. Some of that talk comes from Key's colleague Ronan Dunne, the CEO of O2 UK. In a blog post this week he deflected suggestions that Telefónica's U.K. operation has been threatening legal action over some of the auction proposals and, as a result, contributed to the auction process delays itself.

But then he added: "We would only resort to legal action if we felt the outcome isn't in line with U.K. or European law, or unjustified," notes Dunne in his blog.

That's not very encouraging....

Can Ofcom deliver a successful LTE auction in late 2012 and pave the way for the successful launch of next-generation mobile broadband services as soon as the relevant spectrum is available? Will large swathes of the U.K. corporate and residential population enjoy the productivity benefits of true fiber-to-the-home/office services within the next few years? At this rate I doubt it.

But if, by some minor miracle, all that does come to pass, I'd be prepared to call this nation Great Britain again. Until then, no chance.

Little wonder Key is worried for U.K. plc.

— Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading

digits 12/5/2012 | 4:51:15 PM
re: Great Britain? I Don't Think So

Exactly.... it's not an irreversible situation. It's a case of 'where there's a will there's a way.' The will is lacking. The whoe Australia NBN looked like an impossible task given the initial push-back from telstra and the political fighting, but now it's on course to be a true digital economy and greatly enhance its GDP growth potential.


Obviously the spectrum can't be made available any earlier without desttroying the public broadcasting networks (and that really WOULD cause a riot...) but there appears to be an acceptance of "oh well, that'll do for now" in terms of broadband, which needs more investment than the physical road infrastructure to help kick-start the economy.

Second best won't do and I refuse to calm down, even on a Friday! :-) 

Gabriel Brown 12/5/2012 | 4:51:15 PM
re: Great Britain? I Don't Think So

Tempted to say "Calm down dear".

Not an ideal situation, obviously. I think the reasons for the impasse go back years and are rooted in a spectrum policy that is more ideological than practical.

Gabriel Brown 12/5/2012 | 4:51:14 PM
re: Great Britain? I Don't Think So

Take it to the forums and messages boards over the weekend! Don't let 'em rest.

I think you're right. It's about wanting to make it happen.

I wonder if the UK operators are really as bothered as they say: it's not costing them anything to wait. They're mostly run by international groups that have other places to allocate capital. It's not great for users, but maybe it quietly suits the industry?

Also, it's a very reasonable strategy to wait a while until technology matures. There aren't really any decent handsets yet, so what's the point?

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