Ofcom has given provisional approval for mobile operator Everything Everywhere to use its existing spectrum to deliver 4G services, meaning that a mainstream 4G mobile network could be available in the UK as early as this year.

Everything Everywhere (the combined entity of Orange and T-Mobile) holds a large portion of spectrum at 1800MHz – currently used for 2G. The company hopes to steal a march on other operators by refarming this spectrum for 4G services, ahead of Ofcom's auction of spectrum in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands later this year.

The company submitted an application to Ofcom in January, asking for permission to deliver 4G services over its existing 1800MHz spectrum, to meet the growing demand from internet connected devices such as smartphones and laptops.

“Allowing Everything Everywhere to reuse its spectrum in this way is likely to bring material benefits to consumers, including faster mobile broadband speeds and – depending on how Everything Everywhere uses the spectrum – potentially wider mobile broadband coverage in rural areas,” said Ofcom in a statement today.

“Ofcom has considered whether allowing Everything Everywhere to use this spectrum in this way would distort competition, and provisionally concluded that it would not. And given the benefits this would bring to consumers, Ofcom is minded to allow this change of use.”

The regulator is now holding a four week consultation, during which time stakeholders can submit their views on the proposed change to spectrum licensing.

Everything Everywhere has welcomed the news, and the suggestion that Ofcom is willing to encourage the early deployment of 4G LTE. However, rival operator Vodafone warned that consumers’ best interests would not be served by giving one company a significant head start before any of its competitors have a clear path to 4G.

“Ofcom has already stated it wants competition among four operators. So it comes as a surprise that the regulator is now considering giving the largest player in the market permission to use its existing spectrum for 4G services before the rules for the auction have even been concluded or it has divested spectrum as required by the European Commission," said a Vodafone spokesperson.

Meanwhile, Ovum analyst Matthew Howett interpreted the move as tactical on the part of Ofcom.

“With Ofcom no longer guaranteeing Everything Everywhere spectrum in the upcoming award, it would have been unlikely to dismiss this request, and could in some ways be seen as offering Everything Everywhere a carrot to not legally challenge Ofcom’s current set of proposals for how the award should proceed,” he said.

4G technologies, such as LTE and WiMAX, are expected to provide faster mobile broadband and greater capacity than existing 3G services, and have been touted as a solution to rural broadband scarcity. 4G is ideally suited for wide bandwidth data services such as video streaming, mapping services and social networks, according to Ofcom.

Earlier this month, wireless company UK Broadband switched on a wholesale 4G network in the London Borough of Southwark, offering high-speed services for the public sector and big corporations, as well as providing backhaul for mobile networks.

Everything Everywhere is already carrying out trials of 4G services in specific areas of the country – such as Cornwall and Bristol. The company is also upgrading its 3G network to HSPA+ 21, providing customers with an estimated 50 percent increase in data download speeds, and up to 100 percent faster upload speeds.