By Paul Sandle
LONDON (Reuters) - Mobile phone operators Vodafone and Three have asked British regulator Ofcom for permission to re-use their existing airwaves for 4G services, following in the footsteps of larger rival EE.
Britain got superfast mobile broadband late last year, long after countries such as the United States and Japan, when Ofcom allowed EE to run 4G services over its allocated spectrum.
Ofcom said on Friday it had started a consultation over liberalizing more of the spectrum that was previously licensed for 2G and 3G mobile services in response to the requests.
In a statement that indicated it was keen to press ahead with the idea, Ofcom said on Friday: "This will meet a long-standing objective to liberalize all mobile licenses so that there are no regulatory barriers to the deployment of the latest available mobile technology".
If implemented, the changes would allow operators to deliver 4G services across their existing licenses in the 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2100 MHz wavelength bands, alongside the new airwaves in the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands that are up for grabs in an auction.
Ofcom last month started the auction of new radio spectrum, freed up for mobile services after TV switched to digital transmissions, for 4G.
Matthew Howett, telecoms regulation analysts at Ovum, said the changes would be welcomed by operators and would bring Britain in line with other countries, but the airwaves were unlikely to be used for 4G services in the near future.
"Despite operators being able to deploy 4G services in these bands previously restricted to 2G and 3G technologies, most are unlikely to do so in the short term," he said.
"They would first need to be cleared of their existing use through a process of refarming that would probably take years rather than months, and so the spectrum that is currently being auctioned by Ofcom will most likely be used for Vodafone, O2 and Three's initial deployment of 4G services."
The auction of new airwaves, which are being sold in 28 blocks that can be combined to provide coverage across the country, kicked off on January 23 and is expected to last around six weeks. The government has already penciled in a gain of 3.5 billion pounds ($5.5 billion) from the sale.
The closing date for responses to the consultation is March 29.
($1 = 0.6351 British pounds)
(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)