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Three could be next to go 4G with plans for 1800MHz spectrum

Three plans a 4G service on the 1,800MHz band next year, but the results of the spectrum auction could see rivals go 4G first.

Three could be next to launch a 4G network. Speaking to CNET UK on the day EE launches the first UK 4G network, Three told me that it's set to launch a 4G service on the 1,800MHz band next year, potentially before rival networks can go 4G.

Rival networks could still be first to get in on the 4G action though -- it all depends on the outcome of Ofcom's sale of the 4G airwaves next year. Oh, and there's the small matter of rival EE giving Three the green light -- good luck with that.

EE -- the 4G network formed from the merger of Orange and T-Mobile -- uses the 1,800MHz frequency to broadcast the Internet into LTE phones such as the iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S3. Fortunately for Three, it's managed to get hold of some 1,800MHz airwaves, bought from EE -- which it was ordered to sell as a condition of the merger between Orange and T-Mobile.

Meanwhile rival networks such as O2 and Vodafone have to wait until they can get their hands on the 800 and 2,600MHz bands earmarked for 4G LTE and due to be auctioned off by Ofcom next year. That means Three is in a position to launch its own 4G service on the 1,800MHz band, potentially ahead of the other networks.

Roll on the auction 

Unfortunately for Three, a condition of the EE sale is that it can't launch a 4G service on the 1,800MHz frequency until given the go-ahead by EE. Obviously EE is in no hurry to green-light a competitor, so Three's 4G network could be put off until the later part of 2013. So even though Three has been handed a potential headstart over rivals, it could still be left behind if rivals get their 4G services off the ground quickly.

Ultimately, everything depends on the spectrum auction. Bidding starts in January, and Ofcom told me 4G services should be up and running in May-June 2013.

Even if Three does launch an 1,800MHz 4G service, the network told me that it's still likely to bid for a slice of the other 4G spectrum.

Is improved 3G more useful than 4G?

As we wait for the spectrum auction, EE has a monopoly on 4G -- but Three questions what the average consumer would gain from 4G. Instead Three is bullish about DC-HSDPA, an improved form of 3G which it says provides speeds more than adequate for the everyday smart phone user.

Three says that DC-HSDPA hits speeds of around 12Mbps, not much shy of 4G LTE's 14Mbps or so -- check out Three's graph above -- and besides, the network suggests that a mere 4-6Mbps is enough for most people.

Is 6Mbps fast enough for the average person? What speeds do you demand for your everyday needs? And are you tempted by 4G, or is improved 3G good enough? Tell me your thoughts in the comments or on our Facebook page.