British telecommunications regulator Ofcom has confirmed its plans for the auction of 800MHz and 2600MHz spectrum for deployment of 4G LTE services in the UK. In a statement published today, Ofcom said it expected the auction process to begin before the end of this year, with the bidding process getting underway by early 2013. It added that it anticipated that the first 4G services on these newly-auctioned bands should start being rolled out before the end of next year. 4G services on these frequencies should see some 98 percent of the UK population being covered by LTE in the next five years, as winning bidders will be legally required to meet certain minimum coverage levels by 2017.
Ofcom has also decided that consumers interests are best served by having four strong players in the 4G world, and as such it's set aside a minimum amount of spectrum for a fourth player in addition to O2, Vodafone and Everything Everywhere (Orange + T-Mobile). This spot is widely expected to be filled by the smallest major network provider, Three (Hutchison 3G UK), but Ofcom isn't ruling out the possibility of a new entrant taking this spot.
For its part, Everything Everywhere still plans to attempt 4G roll-out on its existing 1800MHz spectrum before the year's out. If successful, it'd give Orange and T-Mobile UK up to a year's head-start on other networks, which would have to wait for the early 2013 auction process to complete before deploying 4G on 800MHz and 2600MHz.
The perennially delayed 4G auction process, originally intended to begin in 2009, has seen the UK fall by the wayside as countries like the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. already have fully functional 4G LTE networks. At this stage we'll just cross our fingers and hope that the auction process isn't subject to any further delays, which might push 4G network roll-out further into 2014.