By forcing member states to open up spectrum currently being used for 3G to be used by 4G technologies, the Europe is promising fast broadband for all.


A decision made by the European Commission this week regarding 4G could have major implications for consumers and networks in the UK.

On Monday, the European Commission announced it will add another 120MHz to the radio spectrum portfolio for 4G technologies, such as LTE (Long Term Evolution), around the 2GHz band.

The reason behind the decision is simple. The EC wants to make sure that it can deliver on its promise of giving all citizens of the union access to broadband by 2020. Fixed line broadband roll out is too slow, therefore 4G is an obvious solution.

Officially: "Greater access to spectrum for 4G technologies will make a substantial contribution to the Digital Agenda broadband target of universal EU broadband coverage of at least 30 Mbps by 2020."

But where is this new spectrum coming from?

Well the proposed band is currently used only for the 3G networks which we use every day on our phones, smartphones and tablets. The decision in effect means taking some bandwidth from 3G services and re-purposing or 're-farming' it for use as a faster 4G network.

This is exactly what EE, a company originally formed as Everything Everywhere by the 2010 merger of Orange and T-Mobile, has done in the UK.

EE lobbied the telecoms regulator Ofcom to allow it to re-farm some of its network to create a 4G network. In a surprise move, which angered the other networks, Ofcom agreed and last week EE launched the UK's first 4G network.

EE however re-farmed the 1800MHz frequency which it had been using for its 2G services. Considering the fact that 2G is on the wane, with everyone and their grandmother using 3G-enabled phones these days, the effect on consumers is negligible.


Taking away some of the capacity of the already under-strain 3G network however, will have much more of an impact.

According to the European Commission's press statement on the matter, industry sources predict that global mobile data traffic will increase by 26 percent annually by 2015. By then, more than seven billion phones, tablets and other mobile devices will be connectable to the Internet.

In effect this means that if no one migrates to 4G the current 3G networks will likely creak under the load and therefore a move to hurry up the roll out of 4G was deemed necessary.

The decision makes it mandatory for member states to open the relevant spectrum by 30 June, 2014 at the latest, and lays down "harmonised technical conditions to allow coexistence" between different technologies.

On this basis the EU will enjoy up to twice the amount of spectrum for high speed wireless broadband as in the United States, namely around 1000MHz.

"This extra spectrum for 4G in Europe means we can better meet the changing and growing demand for broadband," digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said in a statement. "I want to see member states acting swiftly to change existing licenses. We all win from faster wireless connections in Europe."

But what does all this mean for you and me?

In the short term, no much it seems. Chloe Graf, Senior Manager of Corporate Communications at EE said:

"It won't change anything in the short term, but in the medium term all networks will be able to use the current 3G spectrum for LTE, which I believe is probably great news as people will be wanting as much spectrum available for LTE as they can, while maintain the 3G network."

Maintaining the 3G networks is going to be key in this. While the 2014 deadline is some way off, the networks will need to perform a balancing act to get the switch from 3G to 4G just right.

There will, at some point in the not-to-distant future, be a tipping point where the majority of users will have transferred to 4G and networks will need to make sure they have the bandwidth available to cope, while maintaining a consistent service for those on the 3G network.

Graf says this delicate balancing act "will be front of mind for all operators," but she add that the migration of a majority of users to 4G "is a little way away and I think all the operators will have a lot to learn from the way in which people are using 4G."

Despite some networks, notably AT&T in the US, suggest all operators will move their customers onto 4G immediately, Graf disagrees: "We will have a lot to learn from the way customers use 4G here and we will be very careful to ensure we maintain a very strong 2G and 3G network, and don't interfere with any of that."

Graf said she saw 3G users being around for the "foreseeable future" and doesn't expect everyone to upgrade to 4G that quickly.


While moving from 3G to 4G for consumers will be simply a matter of changing contracts (and possibly phones) for the networks, there will be a lot more work involved.

According to Richard Kenedi, Vice President at Tektronix Communications said:

"In order for networks to carry out this switch from 3G to 4G, will require completely different network architecture. "As they increase the spectrum more towards LTE, they physically have to go and deploy new radio equipment, which has quite different architecture than it was for 3G."

When asked if he believed the demand was there for these high-speed networks, Kenedi said:

"We've noticed 3G networks stay in play and are going to stay in play for some time, but there is also an affinity for consumers to move to the LTE [4G] domain, simply because of the increased speeds and capability they have relative to the service that they are using. We've seen relatively quick kick up in the US relative to the availability of LTE."

EE has faced some criticism for the pricing policy and Kenedi believes operators getting pricing right will be key to 4G uptake:

"The amount of traffic on these networks continues to grow and grow and grow. So I think with the availability of the traffic, making sure there are associated packages available for the consumers and make data usage attractive, then yes there will be quite a lot of utilisation and continued growth of that data on the network."