By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News website
The spectrum could help with Lord Carter's Digital Britain plans
The government may intervene in a dispute between UK mobile operators over the way spectrum is allocated.
At stake is the government's pledge to provide universal broadband to all areas of Britain.
The dispute hinges on the use of the 900MHz section of the airwaves, which the government has earmarked to provide wireless broadband in rural areas.
The government wants it to be shared among operators but owners Vodafone and O2 are not so keen.
The spectrum was divvied up between the two operators when they were the only players on the mobile scene.
Now rival mobile operators want a chunk of the spectrum, largely because it would provide a boost to their data services.
This is because it has better in-building coverage than the spectrum allocated for existing 3G.
"3G delivers a great service but it would be even better if it was running at the 900MHz frequency," said Forrester analyst Ian Fogg.
Lord Carter, minister for communications and author of the Digital Britain report, has also earmarked the spectrum as a way of delivering on his promise to provide universal broadband at a minimum speed of 2Mbps (megabits per second) across the UK.
UK regulator Ofcom has proposed that a small chunk of the spectrum be handed over to one other operator.
It has warned that a solution may be imposed if the mobile operators cannot hammer out an agreement by the end of April.
All five UK mobile operators were brought together for talks in February but so far no agreement has been reached.
In response to Lord Carter's Digital Britain report, Orange has offered to set up a network to do it.
But, in return, it wants a share of the spectrum owned by Vodafone and O2.
Steve Blythe, head of spectrum strategy at Orange, explained how the firm views the issue.
"This has been a long standing problem. Unlike other European countries, where there has been some level of redistribution of spectrum, the UK government hasn't yet taken the opportunity to do that," he said.
"900Mhz is key for our mobile broadband ambitions and to ensure a level playing field. If it isn't released O2 and Vodafone will have considerable cost advantages," it told the BBC News website.
The 800Mhz band of spectrum, which is similar in nature to the 900MHz band, will be released as the switchover to digital TV frees up spectrum currently used by analogue services.
But, said Mr Blythe, it won't realistically be available until mid-2013.
"We think it will be a useful complement but it will not replace 900MHz in the short term and without that we cannot deliver on the Digital Britain agenda," he said.
Vodafone has remained tight-lipped on the issue. It has provided no public response to the Digital Britain report and a spokeswoman told the BBC News website: "While we are actively participating in discussions, we have made it clear that these remain behind closed doors."
Andrew Ferguson, editor of broadband news site ThinkBroadband, wondered whether mobile is even the best technology for delivering universal broadband.
"Mobile has its own problem. Like ADSL, coverage is better the closer you are to the base station, which means they are going to have to put up quite a few new towers," he said.
There could also be issues with things such as the quality of images on websites.
"Mobile broadband passes images through a compression technology. It works but you might not necessarily feel that you are getting your money's worth," he said.
Finally he said there could also be performance issues.
"I live in London where all the operators say they have coverage and I can't always get it to work. It is not as reliable as my original ADSL connection that I had in 2000," he said.
The government has not yet confirmed that mobile will fill the gaps left by fixed line broadband.
But it appears to favour the idea, said Mr Ferguson.
"It seems almost as if the decision is made," he said.