Will our mobile phone networks run out of airwaves?

Political horse-trading could delay capacity expansion - turning your iPhone into a pricy paperweight.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Will the General Election make it impossible for smartphone users to get online? That’s the alarming consequence of the horse-trading in Westminster yesterday, following the announcement of the May 6 poll. With Britain’s mobile networks rapidly running out of capacity because of all the extra stuff we’re doing on our phones these days, part of the Government’s controversial Digital Economy Bill included provision for further liberalisation of the airwaves. But that’s now apparently been dropped in the ‘wash-up’, potentially delaying the whole process. If a deal isn’t agreed soon, the mobile phone networks are going to feel the squeeze…

The problem is that mobile data traffic is growing at such a rapid rate – by 200% last year, according to Ofcom – that the operators are running out of space in their existing spectrum, particularly since we’re not far off the next generation of mobile services (known as ‘long term evolution’ or 4G). So unless we want to see connections slow to a crawl (like in the unhappy days of dial-up) or fail altogether, we’ll need to find some more space. The Government also has a vested interest: it needs the mobile networks to provide wireless broadband in areas where there’s no cabling, so it can fulfil its ambitious promise of universal broadband by 2012.

The supposed answer, announced last October after much wrangling between Ofcom, the mobile industry and the Government, was a deal that would cap the amount of spectrum the big operators can own, while allowing them to keep their existing 3G licenses and bid for more spectrum when the Government auctions off the bit that used to carry analogue TV signals. However, this was due to pass as part of the Digital Economy Bill, which has now been relegated to the three-day wash-up prior to the dissolution of Parliament. And according to the FT this morning, ministers have been forced to drop the section on spectrum ownership in a bid to get the rest through. Since a new Government would probably want to hold their own review, a resolution to the problem still looks a long way off.
Much of the opposition to the Digital Economy Bill has centred on the draconian punishments for file sharers – 20,000 people have signed an internet petition objecting to it. But at this rate, they might not be able to get online to do so this time next year. And spare a thought for all those City types who won’t be able to get email on their Blackberry from the roof terrace at Le Coq d’Argent. The inhumanity…

In today's bulletin:

Brown hammers business leaders as Government forced into concessions
Daimler thinks small with big Renault/ Nissan tie-up
Bye-bye Bebo? AOL gives up on $850m mistake
Editor's blog: Unilever boss says leaders must take the long view
Will our mobile phone networks run out of airwaves?

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