It's time to think again about spectrum licensing

A guest blog by Adam Afriyie, MP for Windsor and chair of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

More people are online than ever before. Between 2010 and 2013, mobile internet usage more than doubled in the UK.

The internet is now a huge part of our lives; it’s sometimes hard to understand how we survived without it. We connect to the internet throughout the day not only from our home and work computers, but increasingly from our smartphones and tablets in trains, buses and coffee shops.

It’s crunch time
This growing demand means that, in a number of areas and applications, we’re fast running out of commercial space on the radio spectrum to carry digital information. The UK is heading for a ‘spectrum crunch’ unless extra frequencies are made available.

Without this extra capacity the UK’s important digital economy, which contributes 6% to UK GDP and supports two million jobs, will run out of room to grow, and customers will suffer as they’re plagued by Internet outages and price hikes.

So, I’m urging the government to release an extra 650MHz of spectrum to private businesses from the public sector. This would help companies meet the needs of their customers over the next few years.

I know the government supports the principle of releasing more spectrum because the minister has already stated his intention to release 500MHz by 2020. I’d just like to see a little bit more released just a little bit quicker.

Of course, some of the spectrum needs to be reserved for UK public services and defence, but most people agree we’ve earmarked too much because of historic allocations. In Australia just 10% of the spectrum is reserved for defence while in the UK around 50% is allocated for military and radar uses.

On top of that, no one is quite sure how much of that spectrum the public sector actually uses in the UK. To answer that question once and for all, the government should consider commissioning a thorough review of current public sector usage, so we have the evidence we need to make an informed choice.

Innovative new approaches

But if we’re going to solve this problem in the longer term, we’ll also need to find innovative new ways of managing the UK spectrum. As well as increasing the amount of spectrum released for commercial use, we shouldn’t be frightened of experimenting with new methods of licensing it.

I believe, for example, the government should strongly consider releasing licences to the spectrum with rights to use it within only certain geographical regions or at specific times of the day. Different companies and clubs could then share the same parts of the spectrum without interfering with each other.

The government should also consider giving companies more power to sell, share and trade their spectrum allocations in a competitive market. This would mean parts of the spectrum that were being used unproductively could be quickly sold and made available where needed.

I’m aware Ofcom has allowed ‘secondary trading’ of spectrum units for some time, but uptake among industry has been low, lower than desired and expected. The government should consider reviewing this current trading process to see whether there are any regulations or restrictions that are presenting any unseen difficulties.

Investment in the network

Finally, there are some interesting emerging technologies in the pipeline, like 5G, that will require large capital injections to bring online. We need to encourage private companies to invest in these new technologies to squeeze the most out of the network.

Licensing radio spectrum to private companies would give companies the security they needed to invest in the network. That’s exactly what we saw after the 4G auction – more investment and better service for customers.

The UK has the opportunity to set itself apart as the trendsetter of the global digital industry. If, as I’ve long campaigned, we combine our culture of innovation with forward-thinking policy, we will become the first-choice destination for global talent and entrepreneurial businesses. And if we’re to compete effectively on the world stage tomorrow, we need to get ahead of our competition today.