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Analogue TV switch-off paves way for 4G spectrum auction

The spectrum at 800MHz will soon be ready for use by mobile operators

The UK's switchover from analogue to digital terrestrial television is finally complete, with the last broadcast having been transmitted in Northern Ireland on Tuesday.

Over the past five years, the UK has gradually been switching off its five national analogue TV channels, region by region, and replacing them with over 70 digital channels. The process has been run by Digital UK, broadcasters and transmission company Arqiva.

The switchover to digital TV has freed up much needed capacity in the 800MHz spectrum band, which will be used for the delivery of 4G mobile services.

The communications regulator Ofcom will begin the process of auctioning this spectrum, known as the "Digital Dividend", at the end of 2012.

"The UK's switchover to digital has been a huge success. Not only has is created more TV choice for consumers, it has also freed up vital capacity that will be used to deliver mobile broadband services to 98% of cities, towns and villages across the UK," said Ofcom chief executive, Ed Richards.

"Now that switchover is complete, Ofcom is looking forward to delivering the 4G auction as the next step in delivering new higher speed mobile broadband services."

The spectrum is expected to be cleared and ready for 4G mobile services across much of the UK from spring 2013 - five months earlier than previously planned. Ofcom announced its decision to speed up the process earlier this month, under extreme pressure from mobile operators.

Vodafone, O2 and Three have all been champing at the bit to start rolling out 4G services, ever since EE gained approval to launch a 4G network using its existing spectrum at 1800MHz.

The decision by Ofcom means that the UK will get 4G sooner than would otherwise have been possible, but effectively gives EE a monopoly on the market until the middle of 2013, as no other operator holds sufficient quantities of 1800MHz spectrum to launch 4G services.

There has been some concern that, due to the proximity of the 800MHz spectrum to the frequencies used for digital terrestrial television broadcasting, signals from mobile base stations could interfere with set top boxes and digital televisions.

However, EE, O2, Vodafone and Three announced last week that they have formed a new company to limit the impact of 4G services on digital television reception. The company, called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited, will be funded by the successful bidders for 800MHz spectrum in the forthcoming auction.

Meanwhile, EE has unveiled pricing plans for its 4G services, with tariffs starting from £36 per month for 500MB of data per month, extending up to £56 for 8GB. According to a poll by Thinkbroadband.com, the price premium will put off 72% of consumers from upgrading to 4G.

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