22/06/2012 09:54 BST | Updated 22/06/2012 10:39 BST

Why Doesn't The UK Have LTE? GSMA Chief Anne Bouverot Says 'It's All About The Money'

The odd thing about next-gen mobile internet in the UK - aka 4G, LTE, or the Magic Broadband Unicorn In The Sky - is that everyone wants it, but nobody has it.

For Anne Bouverot, who is the director general of the GSM Association - which is an organisation of mobile operators (and some others) designed to represent their interests, decide on standards and host events including Mobile World Congress - there is at least one simple explanation why the UK lags behind:

"It's all about the money".

Money to build new networks, money to buy new spectrum, money to potentially make (and lose) by selling that spectrum - and money to convince consumers to spend yet more money upgrading handsets, signing new contracts and guzzling more data.

Bouverot said that while 4G has an increasingly large presence globally, "in the UK the profitability of the operators is lower than in other markets".

"Clearly in the UK it's taken quite a while to agree, at least in part because of operators arguing amongst themselves," Bouverot said.

The details of why 4G hasn't arrived yet are complex - and basically interminable - to relate to the general reader. But the gist is roughly as follows: while the auction of the 800Mhz and 2.6GHz spectrum set aside for 4G use is scheduled to be held by Ofcom before the end of the year, it looks increasingly likely it will now be delayed. Parts of the spectrum come attached to commitments to extend coverage to 98% of the UK - raising costs for operators.

Meanwhile Everything Everywhere wants to get a jump on the other networks by launching its own 4G network on existing 1800MHz spectrum. It set up the website 4GBritain [full disclosure: as a business HuffPost UK is listed as a supporter on the 4G Britain website] to push for Ofcom to allow it to use its own existing spectrum for LTE, and the website argues that this would be a fundamental, inalienable 'Good Thing'.

But - obviously - the other networks have come out against what they see as EE's attempt to build a 4G monopoly. They have also attacked Ofcom, in their statements for the consultation into EE's plan, for underplaying the effect its head start would have on the market.

Elsewhere, the government blames all of the networks for in-fighting, and for threatening litigation if it goes wrong. On Wednesday communications minister Ed Vaizey said that "Ofcom has to undergo an exhaustive consultation process, because every single mobile phone company has threatened to sue Ofcom if they don’t get it right".

And so, in the end, customers blame everyone. And no one gets 4G.

As the head of the group which represents all network operators, Bouverot obviously doesn't take a side in this fight - but she insists that overall it is better to have 4G sooner than later:

"There are a number of reasons why somebody can be first to launch," she said. "It can be because they mastered the technology more, or they have more money, it can be because they happened to have spectrum which enables that which is the case with everything everywhere.

"So I would say EE has this advantage where they would be able to launch now where others wouldn't. But others have advtanges from a spectrum perspective that EE doesn't have. So yes, it is complex - and at the same time it is good to have LTE deployed."

The other factor in this is whether the vast investment needed to bring 4G to the UK is, essentially, worth it.

EE says it will invest £1.5bn in its network, and even though a recently-announced plan by O2 and Vodafone to share development of its grid and the building of 18,500 masts could save millions, the cost is still extraordinarily high.

The result for the consumer could be even higher prices for data - which given the increased consumption by LTE devices could lead to low demand - and so less reason to build the network in the first place.

Worse still, there are big questions as to whether the case for 4G has been made to consumers. When the price of mobile data is still relatively high compared to home broadband - most standard contracts offer between just 250mb and 1gb of data - will being able to use more of it, quicker, actually be something customers want to do?

In short, if you can download a movie to your phone as quickly as watch it, but it costs as much to do so as going to an iMax cinema, who will bother?

"It's a difficult one because as we said it costs a lot of money to deploy LTE, as you need to buy the spectrum rights and you need to deploy new network infrastructure," admits Bouverot.

"There's actually a case to say it should not be less expensive but more expensive."

More expensive?

"Well I believe the future of that is what you could call tiered pricing or different types of offers, it has to be a trade-off between how much you're willing to pay and how much it costs to develop the service."

If the UK finally gets 4G it will need sufficient handsets to support it.

Bouverot, like the networks, talks about the breadth of phones available, and says her personal favourite is the Samsung Galaxy S3 ("it is clearly the best phone in the market"). But there is another company on the horizon that is yet to support LTE - Apple.

So does Apple's continued power in the smartphone market help or hinder the push to LTE - and also technologies like NFC payments?

Bouverot admits Apple's reluctance to share its product plans can be a complication for the GSMA, and operators.

She said: "You see very different strategies from Apple which is 'we do one thing once a year' and focus on one thing and doing it right, and then you see the Android philosophy of let's try a number of new things and through that we learn and get better.

"These are philosophies of how you innovate..."

On NFC Bouverot said the UK still needs a game changer. That could be Apple building NFC into its new handsets, or it could be Transport For London embracing it as a successor to the Oyster card.

"We need to find an agreement between the operators and Transport for London for the Oyster pass to be loaded on your phone one way or the other. We're not there yet and there are discussions about the speed etc, but that would be something that clearly would trigger massive adoption."

For now the UK is still left behind - behind on 4G, behind on NFC, and struggling to keep up with the even fresher developments.

Still, Bouverot said the UK has a bright future if it can learn to put its wider interests first:

"I think if governments had a lot of money they'd deploy them themselves, but it is a significant amount of money and I don't think most governments in Europe have that kind of money.

"So if they want commercial companies to play for these deployments then governments need to think about what type of incentives they give."