The UK is falling behind in mobile because of Ofcom

Seeing a US TV advert for a 4G phone I was struck by how the UK and US positions on mobile have reversed – and that the UK is falling behind.

Thinking back a few years, I remember US colleagues moaning about poor coverage, slow data, clunky handsets and the expense of calling between networks. The UK felt ahead in terms of networks, handsets and the adoption of mobile.

Today the situation seems to be changing. The latest handsets are launched in the US first and the fastest data services already live there. Mobile networks in the US offer 4G as standard, with T-Mobile claiming downloads speeds of up to 42MBs on handsets and dongles.

So what about 4G in the UK? Well…wait until 2013. Or 2014. Ofcom has delayed the auction of the spectrum until the end of 2012 – that’s right, nobody’s been allocated the space yet – after the analogue TV switch off finally finishes and frees-up spectrum. The TV switchover itself started in 2007 after Ofcom pushed it back from an original completion date of 2010.

So, the UK is already behind in terms of speed – and there are further complications ahead. Everything Everywhere (Orange and T-Mobile to us mere mortals) has said it will launch a 4G service this year using their existing spectrum if permitted to by Ofcom. Great! A company innovating, finding a way past obstacles created by bureaucracy. But…Vodafone say that isn’t fair, and may sue if the plan is approved (they threatened to sue over the format of the auctions, too, last year, as did O2).

Meanwhile, the latest iPad uses 4G – but at a frequency different to the planned UK spectrum. So now your mobile and your tablet could be slower than their US counterparts.

Does the lack of speed in Blighty matter? Yes. Think back to how you used your mobile or computer when connections where slower – less overall, no doubt, and for a less varied range of tasks. Faster connections lead us to use devices more and for an increased range of purposes – and that experience stimulates ideas for new apps, sites and services. If you’re on a slower connection than an entrepreneur in the US or elsewhere, you probably won’t have those ideas – or will have to go abroad to fund, staff and launch them.

Then there’s the issues of areas with no mobile coverage and where demand regularly outstrips supply (the Clapham Junction area every rush hour, for example). Ofcom’s zombie-like dragging of it’s feet is bad for the UK mobile and digital sectors, and we’re falling behind.

By Duncan Parry, COO, STEAK


Duncan Parry

Entrepreneurial digital marketing expert who has worked supplier, client and agency side. Co-founded digital agency STEAK and expanded to offices on three continents before selling to Dentsu in 2011.

Following a successful earn-out, I left STEAK in December 2013, working at a Bristol agency in 2014 before moving to the AA as a contractor in 2015.

My role at STEAK evolved as the agency grew to 160 personnel in London, New York and Melbourne. I worked across search, client services, insight and operational roles, leading multiple line reports spanning the majority of the agency's headcount at the London HQ.

My expertise includes bridging the gap between technology and marketing departments and ensuring fast-growing teams meet revenue and client targets. I enjoy enabling brands to understand the significance of digital industry developments and changing consumer behaviours, turning theory into actionable steps that meet marketing, revenue and business objectives.

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