Précis - Apple's launch of the iPhone 5 has highlighted the disparity between the spectrum allocations of different mobile network operators in the UK.
What? Apple's iPhone 5 launched in the UK on 20 September 2012 amidst a cloud of excitement, anticipation and outrage among consumers, commentators and network providers alike. The mobile phone offers the fourth generation ("4G") of mobile phone services with download speeds of up to 20 megabytes per second - at least five times faster than existing 3G networks. However, in the short term, only Everything Everywhere (EE) has plans to roll out a 4G network in the UK that will support the iPhone 5. Other network operators intend to wait until the upcoming spectrum auction is completed, and the frequencies at auction (800MHz and 2.6GHz) will not support the current model of the iPhone 5.
The iPhone 5's 4G Long Term Evolution ("LTE") radio is only compatible with certain frequencies. This has restricted the locations, and networks, with which it can be used for 4G services. In fact, Apple has produced three different models in order that consumers in different countries may make use of its 4G capability on their countries' respective LTE spectrum allocations. Countries with iPhone 5 compatible 4G networks include the US, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Australia, Germany, the UK and parts of Africa. Other countries, such as France and Sweden are unable to offer 4G services for the iPhone 5 because their 4G spectrum allocations are not supported by the iPhone 5.
So What? Apple has strategically targeted the biggest markets around the world for sales of the iPhone 5 in which it forecasts uptake for the product will be high and where consumers will be able to utilise its 4G services. The remaining countries will still be able to sell the iPhone 5 but customers will not be able to obtain the superfast download speeds of which the phone is capable. Apple is seen as an international benchmark in terms of technological growth and countries unable to exploit its products to their full potential run the risk of falling behind in the larger global race to provide the latest and most efficient technologies to consumers and businesses alike.
As previously reported by Eversheds, Ofcom recently permitted Everything Everywhere to use part of its existing 1800MHz spectrum allocation to provide LTE/4G services in the UK, ahead of its competitors. As a result, EE have the opportunity to take advantage of being the sole mobile phone service provider in the UK which can offer the iPhone 5's 4G facility. This advantage could last for as long as a year, until the competing service providers have bought up more radio spectrum at auction to support new 4G networks. However, it has been reported that EE may sell some of its 1800MHz spectrum allocation to Three, which may also allow Three to enter into the 4G market earlier than the remaining network operators in the UK.
Ofcom's decision to permit EE to offer 4G services using its existing 1800 MHz spectrum allocation will ensure that consumers in the UK will be able to benefit from 4G services sooner rather than later. The decision by Apple to release the iPhone 5 to support that frequency is of great benefit to EE in the short term, as other network operators will need to ensure that their handset suppliers include LTE radio technology that operates at 800MHz and 2.6GHz to ensure that they have desirable devices to offer consumers.
Ofcom currently remains steadfast in its decision to vary EE's licence, asserting that the benefits to UK consumers outweigh any possible competition risks. If Ofcom had not permitted EE to press ahead with the provision of 4G networks, consumers in the UK would not have been able to access 4G technology until next year. Ofcom has also made promises this week to complete the switchover of analogue to digital television earlier than expected next year, meaning that the 800MHz spectrum may be ready for 4G services sooner than expected next year.
It will be interesting to follow the long term implications of the rollout of 4G/LTE technology in the UK and, perhaps more significantly, the course of the continuing pursuit of harmonising the provision of state of the art technology on an international level.