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4G plans for the UK take shape as Ofcom details new spectrum auction

The UK finally looks set to enjoy 4G data coverage, thanks to a plan by Ofcom to auction off high-frequency sections of the spectrum to mobile phone networks in 2012.

It looks like the UK is finally going to level up to 4G mobile data speeds -- communications watchdog Ofcom is set to auction off chunks of the spectrum to UK phone networks in 2012.

The parts of the spectrum up for auction will provide capacity for fourth-generation data connections, allowing for connection speed of up to 100Mbps to your mobile phone or tablet. Ofcom's going to sell off the available spectrum in five different chunks, and it's taking care to ensure that no single network is able to buy up the whole spectrum by putting restrictions on how much individual networks are able to snap up.

Everything Everywhere (T-Mobile and Orange), Vodafone, Three and O2 are all expected to bid for delicious slices of spectrum, but Ofcom is enforcing a minimum and a maximum limit on how much the networks can bid for, which should mean that all the networks will offer roughly equal services. That's good news for everyone, and will stop networks ganging up and bidding strategically to squeeze out competitors.

Ofcom is also enforcing a rule that the winning bidders will be obliged to provide mobile broadband to 95 per cent of the UK's population by 2017. The idea here is to use the auction as an opportunity to improve data coverage in areas of the country with poor signal, of which there are many.

Some of the bandwidth up for auction has been freed up by the 'digital switchover' from analogue to digital TV, which is currently being deployed across the UK. This is the 800MHz spectrum band, ideal for providing widespread and indoor mobile coverage. The higher frequency 2.6GHz band, meanwhile, will be used for high-speed connections, funnelling thousands of hours of cat videos to an eager nation of smart phone users.

In 2000, the 3G spectrum was auctioned off and raised a whopping £22bn. This auction isn't expected to raise quite that much though -- networks haven't made as much dosh as they'd hoped from 3G networks, so bidding will probably be much more cautious this time around, despite the fact that there's 250MHz of mobile spectrum up for auction, which is 80 per cent more than was up for grabs in 2000.

Complicating the picture is the existence of two competing methods of delivering high-speed mobile broadband -- LTE and WiMax. The international body nominally in charge of such things has ruled that neither are sufficiently advanced officially to be called 4G, although its standards are extremely high. We suspect UK networks will agree on one and market it as 4G, whatever the International Telecommunication Union's Radiocommunication Sector might have to say about it.

The US and parts of Europe already have both LTE and WiMax coverage, and the UK is definitely lagging behind when it comes to mobile Internet. The introduction of 4G, in whatever form and whatever speed, to our gloomy skies can't come quickly enough -- as Ofcom notes in the consultation for the auction, "The award of this spectrum is vital to the UK's economic and social growth."

Ofcom also shows it has some understanding of which way the wind is blowing, stating, "This is being fuelled by growth in the takeup of smart phones and tablets, offering services such as video streaming, social networking and mobile gaming, as well as applications such as messaging and email."

Three was the first network to introduce 3G to the UK in 2003 -- three years after the auction in 2000. Will it change its name to Four? Either way, our fingers are crossed that we don't have to wait quite so long for 4G to be implemented.