Everything Everywhere - the company behind Orange and T-Mobile - today got the go-ahead to launch the next-generation of mobile phone networks.
The 4G technology, already on offer in America and 40 other countries including Azerbaijan - is set to bring superfast speeds to our handsets, eventually up to 20 times quicker than those currently achieved through 3G.
According to 4GBritain.org, an initiative started by Everything Everywhere but backed by companies and organisations including Virgin Media and The Countryside Alliance, says by 2020 those speeds will deliver a full album download in less than a minute compared to five minutes via 3G.
A full feature film would take 10 minutes instead of an hour with current tests already putting the speed boost at five to seven times faster than the existing network technology.
Today's landmark announcement was made by regulator Ofcom. It has agreed that Everything Everywhere can use part of its current network - the bit it used to supply old 2G services - to introduce 4G to Britain before the end of this year. The move could come as early as next month.
Rivals Vodafone and O2 had opposed the move, believing all companies should have to wait until Ofcom auctions off brand-new 4G network space in late 2012. Only until this happens can Vodafone and O2 acquire enough airwaves to launch their own services.
Because Everything Everywhere is the biggest player in the market it has plenty of spectrum in the 1800 band, which is ideal for 4G.
Everything Everywhere is equally owned by two of the world's leading global communications groups, Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom. It is the largest communications company in Britain with more than 27 million customers across both brands. It claims it will invest more than £1.5bn in the next three years, primarily in boosting 4G service availability.
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Ernest Doku, telecoms expert at uSwitch.com, said: "Giving Everything Everywhere a head start on the other providers is sure to put the cat amongst the pigeons - it seems that Ofcom has put the onus on networks providing a 4G service to the UK more quickly than expected over and above concerns of competition between providers.
"As for the other providers, their grievances are understandable. While Everything Everywhere has been given the green light to start delivering, other networks have to wait until the auction in 2013 to leverage additional spectrum for 4G, and months after that to roll out an equivalent service."
After the news broke, it was rumoured Everything Everywhere would drop its Orange and T-Mobile sub-brands to instead be known by the one over-riding name.
A spokesman for Everything Everywhere said: "Ofcom's decision to make 4G available this year is great news for the UK. Consumers will soon be able to benefit from the much greater mobile speeds that 4G will deliver. 4G will drive investment, employment and innovation and we look forward to making it available later this year, delivering superfast mobile broadband to the UK.”
But he added: "It is well known that we ran a brand review last year. The outcome of that brand review is confidential. However, what we can say is that we remain committed to our hugely successful brands Orange and T-Mobile and continue to invest in them for the foreseeable future. Any suggestion otherwise is entirely speculative."
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Expressing shock at the news, Vodafone issued a strongly-worded statement condemning the decision. A spokesman said: "We are frankly shocked that Ofcom has reached this decision. The regulator has shown a careless disregard for the best interests of consumers, businesses and the wider economy through its refusal to properly regard the competitive distortion created by allowing one operator to run services before the ground has been laid for a fully competitive 4G market.
"We wholeheartedly support the Secretary of State’s call for the 4G auction to occur in December and look to the regulator to finally do its job and produce a competitive market for 4G services as soon as possible."
A spokesman for Three said while it supports allowing companies to use their existing network space, it must be a level playing field for everyone to do so at the same time. A spokesman added: "Without addressing competition issues, it ultimately harms consumers."
However, the sting in the tail for existing and potential customers of Everything Everywhere could be yet to come.
It has not yet announced exact details of its 4G network, which will use technology called Long Term Evolution, or LTE. The company must still reveal pricing and crucially, which currently available handsets or devices will work with it.
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Some experts believe without competition in the market, pricing will be higher than it otherwise would have been had everyone launched 4G at the same time.
As with many new technology launches, this could mean only a small proportion of "early-adopter" users snap up 4G from the start, hampered by the cost and the need to upgrade their existing smartphone.
The launch of the new iPad earlier this year was controversial in Britain after it was revealed its 4G capabilities would not work on future UK 4G networks due to them both operating on different frequencies.
But with the iPhone 5 expected to be announced by Apple in September, featuring 4G support for the UK, Everything Everywhere could be about to steal a march on its competitors.
Dominic Baliszewski, of broadbandchoices.co.uk, said: "New technology always comes at a premium and with one network given early access it will unfortunately mean no competition on pricing, albeit only for a short time. We would urge mobile phone users to wait until all networks have 4G access and compare the packages available before rushing to make the switch.
"Surprisingly, many UK handsets will not actually support 4G technology so customers may have to upgrade to a completely new handset, adding additional cost to the switch. As 4G opens the floodgates for downloading, customers will need to make sure they do not get stung with excess download fees."
One major benefit of 4G is that it allows those living in remote areas to connect to the internet at speeds similar to fixed-line broadband. They would use a mobile-style dongle instead as currently, many homes and businesses in outlying areas of the UK are still stuck on creaking dial-up speeds with no access to the broadband technology enjoyed in big cities.
The introduction of 4G will allow devices to stream live TV on the move without lag or stuttering, let people work remotely just as if they were in an office and make video downloads available in seconds.
These 4G networks also have greater capacity potentially meaning more people can use them at the same time for data without a slowdown occurring.
James Walker, of Walker Ellis Associates Ltd, who took part in a 4G trial in Cumbria, said: "Rural areas are often marginalised due to their distance from the nearest telephone exchange and cable or fibre optic technology simply isn't viable in areas like this, so the rollout of 4G finally provides a real and viable solution."
Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith & The Border, added: "This has the potential to allow people here in Penrith and the Border to get the most from their mobile phones
when introduced; and is of course yet another triumph in our long-running campaign to get improved internet infrastructure and access into our remoter communities."
The future competitiveness of business in the UK and the growth of our economy could also be boosted by 4G, it is claimed.
Richard Alvin, whose company owns Business Matters magazine, said: "We spend a huge amount of our time with the owners and managers of small and medium-sized businesses across the whole of the UK.
"As much as we try and educate and inform them on the advantages of using social media to grow their sales and cloud computing and mobile devices to run their businesses more efficiently, if they cannot connect to Facebook or Twitter or their connection speeds are so slow that these modern business tools are impossible, it is like they are trying to run and grow their business with their hands in handcuffs.
"Business in 2012 is mobile and social, and for that to happen in the UK we need fast and reliable connectivity. Without it we will be overtaken by the countries whose government and telecoms providers have take the forethought to invest in the technology to enable businesses to grow."