When it comes to mobile spectrum, it's time for Three to get over itself

I was hugely pleased today to see that despite the possibility of another legal roadblock in the Court of Appeal, telecoms regulator Ofcom is going to move ahead and lay the groundwork for the long-delayed auction of two massive slices of radio spectrum, one to support enhanced 4G mobile networks, and the other to form the basis for future 5G mobile networks.

But I also detected a definite note of frustration in Ofcom’s statement, which said “the litigation by Three is continuing to delay access to the spectrum and the benefits to consumers and businesses that can flow from it.”

And to be perfectly honest, I can’t say I blame the regulator for being a tad annoyed. Actually, I don’t think the regulator’s statement goes far enough.

Three is challenging the auction process because it believes that the way spectrum holdings in the UK are structured is unfair to smaller operators, that the combined BT-EE entity owns too much spectrum, that its holdings should be capped, and that its ability to bid in the upcoming auction should be restricted.

And I don’t argue with any of this. Yes, it is self-evidently correct that the way spectrum holdings in the UK are structured is unfair on smaller operators such as Three, but it is also true that Three has been able to buy up two major slices of spectrum in the past three years through its acquisition of UK Broadband in early 2017, and a 2015 deal with Qualcomm.

But I now have to ask myself what is more important? That everything is perfectly fair? Or that the UK is able to compete on the global stage?

The spectrum that Ofcom proposes to sell off could have been in use nearly two years ago. Data use on 4G networks shows no signs of stopping. And the first 5G networks will probably be rolled out in this country two years from now.

The UK needs this spectrum in use as soon as possible, and I find Three’s attitude increasingly at odds with the pressing national need to both grow and exploit the potential of our digital economy. We must have more network capacity!

It’s time for Three either to get over itself, or get its rich parent – which made £1.47bn in profit in the first six months of 2017 – to put its hand in its pocket and help keep its UK operation competitive.

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