Ofcom’s good news for London mobile broadband


If you are on the move between meetings in London or stuck in the office, you may well have noticed something this month. Mobile broadband is getting better, particularly in London, where O2 is leading the way.

Those who struggled to tweet at a client’s office, check email in a basement meeting room or pull up sales figures in the suburbs should soon start noticing there is now more capacity and, crucially, less pointing handsets out of windows to get a connection.

The reason is simple. After years of wrangling between mobile phone operators, the watchdog Ofcom has seen good sense and put consumers first – particularly businesspeople who need mobile data on the move.

For the first time, the same airwaves that bring consumers voice and text are now being used for the mobile internet.

Until now, mobile internet was run on completely different airwaves. Voice, or 2G, was on relatively long waves, which can reach deep in to buildings. Meanwhile data – or 3G – was on shorter waves which bounce off walls.

The science (and history) bit

Ofcom’s latest decision to allow 3G to run on the same airwaves as 2G may sound like common sense, but there is a lot of history here.

The 2G spectrum for voice was originally awarded to Vodafone and O2, back in the days of big shoulder pads and briefcase-sized mobile phones.

The 2G spectrum travels further and penetrates walls better because it travels in longer waves – the same reason you can hear the bass from a neighbour’s sound system but not the treble.

This is obviously just what mobile data could do with to boost signals inside buildings. But until last month, operators were barred from using 2G for data. It could only be used for voice and text.

Data had to be carried on the 3G (digital) licences that the country and then five operators collectively paid £22.5bn to acquire.

Rivals said Vodafone and O2 were given an unfair advantage years ago, albeit inadvertently. Unless Vodafone and O2 gave some of their accidental bounty to rivals, the argument went, they shouldn’t be allowed to use 2G for data.

Furthermore, competitors said Vodafone and O2 shouldn’t get any of another spectrum being released when the UK switches from analogue to digital television in 2012.

The former television spectrum will be auctioned in the first quarter of 2012. It can reach long distances and penetrate walls – which is why it was used for television – and is now highly prized for mobile broadband use.

Good reception from common sense

When the ex-television spectrum hits auction, there will be caps on how much long-wave spectrum a mobile phone operator can own. There will also be an overall cap on the total amount of frequencies they have on the balance sheet of all wave lengths.

It is a stunningly simply solution from Ofcom. Some telecoms companies will say it is unfair, but healthy competition is ensured. Long-wave frequencies will start to be used for data, to the benefit of anyone struggling to get good reception in the capital.

O2 is the first to get going, and has announced it has switched mobile data services on to its long wave length. Its competitors are expected to follow suit imminently. (Only 3, which entered the market with the 3G auction in 2000, has no 2G spectrum to switch over to data and so cannot immediately gain from Ofcom’s latest decision.)

While London’s businesspeople enjoy fewer trips to the window, a point to remember is this will only improve access; downloads and uploads won’t speed up until the next generation of mobile broadband services, 4G, are launched in years to come.