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Row over campaign for earlier launch of 4G mobile internet

Category : Business

• Orange and T-mobile in 4G lobbying controversy
• Jonathan Ross denies involvement in promotion

Britain’s largest mobile operator has set up a “not for profit” organisation which has been trying to recruit celebrities and entrepreneurs to back a change in regulation that rivals say would allow it to steal a march on competitors.

Representatives of Everything Everywhere, the company behind Orange and T-Mobile, claimed to have secured the support of Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross, eBay and billionaire technology entrepreneur Mike Lynch for a campaign which launches on Monday to bring forward the introduction of 4G superfast mobile internet to the UK.

However, several prominent names have told the Guardian they have not signed up, amid concerns that the campaign, entitled 4GBritain.org, did not have the support of other mobile networks.

A spokesman for Jonathan Ross emailed the Guardian saying the TV presenter: “Knows nothing about it, and will NOT be involved.”

A circular, which supporters have been asked to sign, states: “The coalition supports bringing 4G LTE to the UK as soon as possible, by ensuring the spectrum auctions and release of new spectrum is not delayed further and existing mobile spectrum can be freed up for 4G LTE.”

EE already owns enough spectrum to launch 4G without having to wait for an airwaves auction scheduled for 2013, and has applied to the regulator Ofcom to be allowed to start offering the service this year. If Ofcom agrees to vary EE’s licence, rivals say the group could launch 4G a year ahead of them, giving it a commercial advantage.

EE has recruited two PR agencies to run the campaign, which will publish an educational website and target MPs and the media. Golin Harris has been briefing journalists that 4GBritain.org has the backing of Fry and Ross, while fellow agency Brunswick has been recruiting opinion formers.

Letters sent to supporters explain EE’s involvement but make apparently unsupported claims. In one, extracts of which were seen by the Guardian, Brunswick says: “We have a number of clients taking part, the most active being Everything Everywhere, who are taking the lead role in organising and are contributing the economic research. The rest of the industry are being invited to participate.”

However, the three other mobile phone networks – Vodafone, O2 and Three – said they had not been approached.

A spokesman for Vodafone said the campaign “looks like a lobbying effort set up to give an unfair competitive advantage to what is already the largest player in the market”.

A Three spokesman said: “We are beginning to sense that this is indeed a campaign to push for and protect a potential monopoly position.”

An email dated 13 April to a prospective supporter from a member of EE claimed: “4G Britain is a not-for-profit group supported by organisations including Everything Everywhere (Orange and T-Mobile), eBay, Autonomy, TheTrainline.com, The Countryside Alliance and London First … and others.”

In fact, Three of these have not joined. A spokesman for Mike Lynch, who sold his Autonomy software company for £7bn last year, said the campaign was presented as a “coalition of the operators”. He has not signed and is now considering whether to participate. A spokesman for eBay said: “While we support faster mobile broadband, at no stage did we confirm our involvement.” London First, which promotes inward investment in the capital, said it declined to sign, on the grounds the campaign does not have cross sector support.

Stephen Fry and Brunswick declined to comment. EE said celebrities had been approached but their involvement was not confirmed, and that it hoped other organisations would be joining in the coming weeks.

“Everything Everywhere is proud to be helping raise awareness of the benefits of next generation telecommunications services. The 4G Britain website has been initiated by our organisation to help educate and build understanding of the benefits of 4G for consumers and businesses in the UK. It is open to all, and is intended to be an ongoing initiative which we hope many organisations will join in the coming weeks and in the future.

“We’d like to make clear that, notwithstanding the campaign, today’s existing operators have an opportunity to deploy 4G services, subject to: their willingness to invest; that they have requested from Ofcom a variation to their licence; and that this has been granted. The suggestion that this campaign is designed to seek an unfair benefit for Everything Everywhere ahead of other telecoms companies is wrong.

“It is disappointing that some of our competitors are falsely claiming that an as yet unlaunched website, being built to help stimulate awareness amongst the public of potential benefits of 4G, is in any way bad for consumers and the wider British economy. This is a ridiculous position for them to adopt especially when you consider that when 4G becomes available it will bring significant levels of investment and job creation to the UK.”

The Association for Lobbying Transparency whose members include Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, has been campaigning for the government’s proposed register of lobbyists to include charities and not for profit organisations in order to promote openness.

Tamasin Cave of the ALT said: “4GBritain looks very much like it is basically Everything Everywhere. It has been initiated by the firm, who appear to be the group’s sole financial backers, and they have paid PR people to run it. Using third parties to push a line is a common lobbying tactic – it’s about separating the message from what could be seen as a self-interested messenger. They understand that people are more likely to pledge support if its Stephen Fry rather than a commercial interest doing the asking.”

EE points out that it has always been open about its involvement, declaring its role in meetings, phonecalls and emails.

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