No 4G? Blame the networks

No 4G? Blame the networks
4G phones are prevalent in the US

If you travel abroad, you'll often come home thinking Britain is rubbish. Our airports are overcrowded, as are our trains, and the bits of road that aren't jammed solid have potholes deep enough to swallow school buses.

The very worst thing, though, is the mobile phone network. Where some other countries have super-speedy 4G connections, I sometimes struggle to get a data signal in major cities or on major transport routes.

People in the 1950s were famously promised jetpacks in the not too distant future; in the UK, 4G's beginning to look like a similarly empty promise. According to Ofcom, the auction for 4G networks might happen before the end of June. Maybe. If the weather's nice and nothing bad happens.

The auction was supposed to be in early 2012, but Ofcom has had to put it back, largely because the networks are arguing with one another.

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Want to know why the US, much of Scandinavia, much of Europe and a whole bunch of Asian countries have 4G and we don't? Blame the networks.

As Ofcom's Ed Richards told The Guardian, the UK will be the last major European economy to hold a 4G auction - Germany started its rollout in 2010. The best case scenario is a rollout that runs from 2013 onwards, but even then that means much of the country will be on 3G in 2015.

As ever, the rollout will focus on the most densely populated areas first, which isn't much cop for the Scots, Irish and Welsh or anyone in a rural area.

"I think some major companies will have to reflect upon whether they have inadvertently jeopardised the benefits of objective, independent regulation in this area by virtue of their willingness to game the system," Richards says, making it clear that the networks' bickering is the main problem here: they're "holding back innovation and hampering growth" with litigation that is "essentially strategic rather than based on objective grounds."

4G isn't just about speed: it's also about providing connectivity to the bits of the country where wired broadband isn't economic.

As the Federation of Small Businesses puts it, "businesses in rural areas need broadband now." Meanwhile the National Farmers Union's chief economist Phil Bicknell told the BBC: "We're seeing that widening gap between those people in rural areas, in terms of the speed of their connection with broadband, and those superfast connections that are increasingly emerging in urban areas."

According to policy organisation Open Digital, the lack of 4G is costing UK businesses £732 million per year in lost productivity and limiting businesses' use of cloud computing.

It's not surprising that the networks are putting their own narrow commercial interests ahead of the national interest - but it's surprising that they're getting away with it. However, the networks should be careful: if Ofcom can't persuade them to play nice, the Government may decide to regulate the sector directly.


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Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.