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Mobile spectrum sharing is vital for UK 5G roll-out, says report

A report commissioned by independent network builders’ body Inca has warned that current approaches to how spectrum is apportioned are leaving vast amounts unused, and this needs to change

The potential of fixed wireless access (FWA) as a delivery mechanism for both future 5G mobile network coverage and ultrafast broadband services will not be fully realised unless new approaches are adopted for how mobile spectrum is shared out around the UK, says a new report.

The paper, High-performance wireless broadband: an opportunity for rural and enterprise 5G, was produced by analysts at Plum Consulting on behalf of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (Inca) and the UK Wireless Internet Service Providers’ Association (UKWispa). It set out to highlight the important role that small independent network operators and altnets will play in delivering the UK’s government broadband targets.

However, it also revealed a “huge discord” between how Ofcom currently allocates spectrum and what may be a more effective approach to meet the needs of rural consumers, according to Inca CEO Malcolm Corbett.

“The way spectrum is currently managed means that large parts of the UK won’t get access to services promised by the big operators which tend to be the winners in the national spectrum auctions,” said Corbett.

“This means much of the spectrum is likely to sit unused when it could be used to connect entire communities in rural and hard-to-reach locations.”

This is because currently, spectrum is auctioned in such a way that it grants the big four mobile network operators (MNOs) – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – exclusive use of what they buy across the UK, but confers no obligation to actually use it.

Thanks to the established economics of network roll-out – it makes more sense to bring 5G to large urban areas first because there are fewer potential users in the countryside – spectrum that could be used to deliver basic wireless broadband services to neglected and digitally excluded rural communities will essentially sit vacant.

Inca claimed that the problem would doubtless be compounded, with the upcoming auctions of additional spectrum in the 3.6GHz to 3.8GHZ band likely to see licences again awarded only to the large MNOs for use in urban 5G roll-outs.

Corbett said Ofcom should seize the opportunity ahead of time to change the process and liberalise how spectrum is divided up.

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“The UK’s independent broadband industry is desperate to help deliver high-performance broadband to homes and business, leading the way in full fibre and wireless services,” he said. “But delivering full fibre everywhere will take years or even decades.

“With access to the new spectrum band, wireless broadband operators could install superfast and even ultrafast broadband to millions of properties quickly and at a low cost. But this cannot happen without a change in how spectrum is allocated.”

The report proposed that Ofcom should consider allocating spectrum on a geographical basis, with smaller players permitted to buy usage rights for spectrum in rural areas where the MNOs are unlikely to roll out 5G for some time, while still letting them bid for the more valuable chunks of spectrum in towns and cities.

Corbett said that if Ofcom were to adopt this approach, not only would both rural consumers and businesses stand to gain, but the spectrum auctions would also probably raise more money for the Treasury.

“If the way spectrum is managed does not change, there is a real risk that the UK will be left behind,” he added.

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