BERLIN -- Britain has the most vigorous mobile phone market in Europe, a brash, busy bazaar of four network operators and nearly 50 resellers competing to offer the newest, fastest devices and services to a savvy, demanding public.
Nearly 6 in 10 Britons use smartphones, and one in five use tablet computers. That is the highest level in Europe according to OfCom, the nation's telecommunications regulator. Only 4 in 10 British consumers gain access to the Internet on desktop computers. Most use laptops, tablets and smartphones.
But in one measure of cutting-edge mobility, Britain is a laggard. With 92 percent of adults using mobile phones, the country turned on its first high-speed, fourth-generation network using Long Term Evolution technology only in October.
The United States, South Korea and Sweden flipped the switch at least two years ago on the superfast wireless technology, whose speeds are four to five times as fast as those of third-generation networks. Even Angola, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan have been quicker than Britain in getting LTE service up and running.
But this month, OfCom plans to remove the obstacle that has consigned most British consumers to the wireless slow lane -- a lack of broadcast spectrum. The regulator, which has not announced a start date, plans to sell 250 megahertz of spectrum vacated by television broadcasters or freed up by the government, representing an 80 percent expansion of the licensed airwaves, in an auction involving seven bidders.
OfCom initially wanted to hold the 4G spectrum sale in 2007, but planning hurdles and legal threats from the country's network operators -- there were five at the time -- concerning the terms of the auction turned the process into a long-running saga that spanned two governments and a merger that created a new market leader.
"I think it has been a huge embarrassment for U.K. Plc as a brand," said Matthew Howett, an analyst at Ovum, a research firm in London. "Everybody has held up the U.K. as being behind the other countries. Traditionally, the U.K. has been a leader, and was one of the first to get 3G up and running. So this has not been good."
Operators wanted to avoid a repeat of the 3G auction that Britain held in 2000, when bidders drove the price of licenses up to the point where companies like Vodafone were obliged to take big writedowns on the technology. The government raised £22.5 billion, or $36.3 billion at current rates, in its 3G sale. This year, the 4G auctions are expected to raise about £3.5 billion, although the bidders will set the final amount. OfCom has devised rules intended to ensure that all four network operators obtain enough spectrum to sell LTE service.
"Operators did not want a repeat of what happened in 2000, which was bad for the industry," said Suresh Subramanian, the managing director of InterConnect Communications, a company in Chepstow, Wales, that advises governments on spectrum issues. "I think it is fair to say that British industry and government wanted to get the auction right this time, and the extra scrutiny was one of the reasons it has taken so long."
Lasting damage from the lack of 4G in the British mobile phone sector appears to be limited.
Mr. Howett said that British smartphones gain access to the Internet half of the time over Wi-Fi networks anyway, not through over-the-air mobile networks, so the delay in introducing LTE service has had a minimal effect on mobile surfing habits.
The lack of 4G speed also has not slowed growth in mobile advertising, said Jon Mew, the director of mobile and operations at the Internet Advertising Bureau U.K. in London, a group representing the country's biggest online advertisers.
Mobile advertising in Britain is growing rapidly, second only to growth in the United States, according to I.A.B. figures. In the first half of 2012, the last period for which data were available, British mobile advertising rose 132 percent from a year earlier, to £182 million, representing 7 percent of all digital advertising.
"I don't think the delay in 4G has had an effect on the mobile advertising industry here," Mr. Mew said. "I think the effect of 4G on advertising will be more gradual. As people spend more time on 4G networks, more advertising money will move there."
The vast majority of mobile advertising spending, 73 percent, went on sponsored links in mobile searches, a market that Google dominates. According to Hitwise U.K., a London research firm, Google had 89 percent of the British search market, both mobile and desktop, in October.
Just how many people in Britain are prepared to pay for LTE service remains to be seen. Everything Everywhere, the market leader that on Oct. 30 switched on what is so far the only LTE network in Britain, took some time to find the right price for the service.
The joint venture of the Deutsche Telekom subsidiary T-Mobile and France Télécom's Orange U.K. networks is selling LTE in a series of fixed data packages starting at £36 a month, which includes text messaging and unlimited calls to all networks, and 500 megabytes of data. The packages range in cost up to £56 a month for 8 gigabytes of data.
The operator has tinkered with separate LTE data pricing plans for laptop dongles, or devices that provide access to the Internet via Wi-Fi networks, and on Nov. 28 added 60 percent more data to its range of 4GEE mobile broadband plans at no extra charge. The company said it could not disclose information about how many customers had signed up to the service to date.
"It has been a positive response so far, especially from business users," said Chloe Graf, a spokeswoman for Everything Everywhere.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.