The UK is falling behind Uzbekistan in terms of advanced Mobile Broadband Networks…!

The UK is falling behind Uzbekistan in terms of advanced Mobile Broadband Networks…!

At the recent conference (Oct 2010) in Amsterdam on the new LTE mobile technology I saw a list of the mobile operators who have committed to rolling out these advanced 4th generation mobile broadband networks (Source GSA). Two things were striking. First was that this 4th generation mobile broadband train is finally leaving the station. There were 101 mobile operators on board from all parts of the world, including Uzbekistan. The second striking thing was that there was not a single UK mobile radio operator on the list. I found this quite stunning for a country that led the way with first generation analogue network competition, was shoulder to shoulder with France, Germany and Italy in assembling the spectacularly successful GSM mobile revolution and was the very first country in Europe to hold a 3G spectrum auction.  How has it come to pass that Uzbekistan is now gong to have a more advanced mobile radio network sooner than the UK?

It is probably only a slight exaggeration to suggest that one of the fastest growing business activities of theUKmobile phone operators has been taking the regulator Ofcom to Court for judicial review. Even those not charging towards the Courts have no doubt been threatening to do so (…and not just the mobile phone operators) and this has weighed on the speed with which decisions are taken. The result of this culture of litigation has been for “UK LTD” to have wasted at least 3 years in a world that has been moving on apace.

This raises the question as to what is causing this new culture of litigation in the first place. One thing I can say with certainty is that Ofcom is a well run regulator that has very able people trying to do a good job. The same can be said for the mobile phone operators (I used to work for one of them). So if the respective organisations are well run, the people involved are very capable and everyone has been motivated to do a good job… why is theUKuniquely falling behind many other countries in getting on with allocating radio spectrum and galvanising the industry to sieze the future opportunity of much better broadband mobile networks?

The studies I have done on this question come up with the answer…there is something inherently wrong with mobile radio regulatory framework. Ofcom have been given too many duties without the corresponding powers. And Ofcom are expending too much of their regulatory credits trying to give the kiss of life to a dying mobile network competition model and not enough to the future mobile infrastructure. Collectively UK Ltd has lost the plot. There is a pressing need to revise the regulatory model with a more forward looking set of priorities. This has to be done in a way that gathers both the regulator and the industry behind a new consensus.

It is one thing to make the case for change but much more challenging to say what such a better model might look like. However at least two key elements are clear. The first is that the private sector, network competition and market forces will be (and must be) the engines of delivery for new mobile network investment. Regulation must aim to create the right conditions for this. Today the UK mobile industry is in the hands of multinational companies with plenty of competing claims for their scarce capital resources from other parts of the world…which places a unique responsibility on the government to make sure we have in place a framework based upon “regulation for investment”…rather than the “regulation for litigation” that has characterised the past 3 years. I can well recall that theUSAlost the cellular radio leadership race in the 1970′s due to just how long it took their long winded legal processes to slowly grind their way through the spectrum allocation processes.

Second, the engagement and leadership of governments is vital in setting an overall ambition for the new advanced national mobile infrastructures and injecting a sense of urgency in getting them rolled out on a time-scale competitive with other parts of the world.

It is a strange anomaly that all governments (including the current one) seem to readily engage with the fixed broadband infrastructure and have visions for example of a UK fibre optic network future… yet are so detached when it comes to advance mobile broadband networks. Yet theUKcould be rolling out next generation mobile broadband networks to full national coverage for a fraction of the cost and without a penny of tax payer’s money.

I am a realist and know that Priority 1 for the Government is cutting the public debt. But Priority 2 has to be about growth. New investment in advanced 4th generation mobile broadband infrastructure would be a good start. The next opportunity point is the UK radio spectrum auctions (already running late with 2012 being pencilled in) and the key policy issue is whether the auctions are designed simply to raise money for the Treasury, get tied to backward looking regulatory objectives or are designed to spearhead, at an accelerated pace, the roll out of the best mobile broadband networks in the world.

Beyond that is the prospect of a new Communications Bill and a high priority should be to give Ofcom the decisive powers to do the job…for every duty they are given Parliament needs to ensure there is the corresponding power to deliver on the duty…that at least will minimise all these wasteful journeys to the Courts.

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