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(Pocket-lint) - UK independent communications regulator Ofcom has announced which companies have qualified to bid in the auction for the extra spectrum earmarked for 4G data.

The companies that will compete in "the largest ever sale of mobile airwaves in the UK" include, as expected, Vodafone and O2 (as Telefónica). In addition, EE and Three are on the list. The former launched its 4G network at the end of October, while the latter will be renting space on EE's network to launch its own offering in the new year. The acquisition of alternative spectrum would allow them to expand their services.

Perhaps a more surprising bidder is BT, through its subsidiary Niche Spectrum Ventures, and the group is rounded off by British business-to-business (B2B) network services firm MLL Telecom, and the UK arm of Hong Kong network provider PCCW, HKT.

The auction process starts in January, when bidders will be competing for two spectrum bands, 800MHz and 2.6GHz. Ofcom has designed the auction so that there will be at least four "credible national wholesalers of mobile services", after perfoming a competition assessment in July. It believes this outcome will provide customers with the best services at lower prices.

Roll-out of the new services is currently slated for late spring 2013.

"The 4G auction will be a competitive process that will dictate the shape of the UK mobile phone market for the next decade and beyond," said Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive.

"New 4G services will stimulate investment, growth and innovation in the UK and deliver significant benefits to consumers in terms of better, faster and more reliable mobile broadband connections."

You can find out more on Ofcom's dedicated 4G page for UK consumers at consumers.ofcom.org.uk/4g.

Pic: (cc) devopstom

Writing by Rik Henderson.