Britain’s 4G delays - blame the lawyers

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How far behind is the UK in rolling out 4G, the next generation of mobile phone networks? And whose fault is that?

The answer, according to the Dutchman running Britain's biggest mobile operator, is that we're a long way behind the United States and many European countries. And he puts some of the blame on the industry's appetite for litigation.

This morning, Everything Everywhere - the bizarrely named amalgam of T-Mobile and Orange - is launching a campaign to heighten awareness of the benefits of 4G to the UK economy. It's the brainchild of Olaf Swantee who came to the UK in September to take up the reins at EE (let's call it that to save space).

When I went to see Mr Swantee in his office in Paddington, he professed himself puzzled by what he'd found on arrival in London. This country, he told me, had long had a reputation as an early adopter of mobile technology - now it was in the 4G slow lane.

The industry had underinvested in the fundamental digital infrastructure, and he intended to do something about it - first by spending £1.5bn on his own network, then by whipping up interest in the importance of 4G.

Hence the 4G Britain campaign. But what exactly is this supposed to achieve? The 4G auction has been delayed until the end of this year, so I suppose the campaign could apply some pressure to speed that up. But Ofcom says the spectrum for 4G - mostly the dividend from the digital switchover - won't be available until next year anyway, so there is no real prospect of accelerating the timetable.

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Image caption Olaf Swantee runs Everything Everywhere (T-Mobile + Orange)

And whose fault is it that things have moved so slowly? Well speak to anyone at Ofcom and they will point to the constant threat of legal action from the mobile operators. Even now, we can't be sure that the auction won't be further delayed by litigation from one network or another which doesn't like the rules of the game.

Mr Swantee seems to agree that this is a problem in the UK. "I've been surprised at how often lawyers are used to resolve problems here," he told me. "Any litigious behaviour that delays 4G further would not be good."

He said it would be very damaging if operators were tempted to sweat their existing assets - the 3G networks in which they invested a decade ago - while continuing to use their lawyers to postpone any investment in 4G.

But who started this? The courtroom battles began way back in 2008, when Ofcom's attempt to make available some of the spectrum for 4G was stymied by a legal challenge - by T-Mobile, now part of EE. Mr Swantee makes the fair point that that was under a previous management, and he has brought in a new approach.

But his rivals are cynical about the motives behind the 4G Britain campaign. They point to the fact that Everything Everywhere is currently awaiting a ruling from Ofcom on whether it can use some existing spectrum to bring in a 4G service early. There's been talk of legal action if the regulator waves that through - so no wonder Mr Swantee wants everyone to join hands and sing songs about the 4G future around the campfire.

And over the last week or so I've had a glimpse of the rivalry within the industry. The PR team preparing the 4G Britain campaign suggested that other networks, along with celebrities and various technology companies would be joining the movement. One operator got in touch to stress that they would not be signing up and a technology company told me that claims of their support were inaccurate. Even the celebrities seem to have thought twice about it.

Mr Swantee certainly makes a convincing case on the need to get on with building a 4G Britain. But in a mobile market which is one of the most competitive in the world, it may be a little optimistic to expect peace to break out and lawyers to be put out of work.