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Ofcom fires starting gun for new mobile spectrum auction

Mobile spectrum in the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz bands will be put up for auction either late in 2019 or early in 2020

Telecoms regulator Ofcom has confirmed plans to auction two tranches of radio spectrum for 5G mobile networks by early 2020, in the 700MHz and 3.6GHz and 3.8GHz bands respectively.

The auction will enable the UK’s four mobile network operators (MNOs), EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – all of whom can reasonably be expected to take part in the auction – to enhance the 5G networks they are currently in the beginning stages of building following the April 2018 auction.

The 700MHz band is particularly well-suited for high-quality mobile coverage both indoors and across wide areas, including rural areas. The 3.6-3.8GHz band of mid-frequency spectrum is more suited to providing network capacity for data-hungry connections in towns and cities, critical for 5G.

“Mobile coverage has improved across the UK this year, but too many people and businesses are still struggling for a signal. We’re particularly concerned about mobile reception in rural areas,” said Ofcom Spectrum Group director, Philip Marnick.

“As we release new airwaves for mobile, we’re planning rules that would extend good mobile coverage to where it’s needed. That will help ensure that rural communities have the kind of mobile coverage that people expect in towns and cities, reducing the digital divide.”

The new coverage rules will mean that within four years of the award, up to two of the winning bidders will have to extend good, outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s land area, improve coverage for at least 140,000 homes and offices which they don’t already cover, and provide coverage from at least 500 new masts in rural areas.

To help things along, Ofcom said it would discount the price for spectrum that carries these rules by between £300m and £400m. In the past, notably during the 3G auction in the early 2000s, MNOs found that they overspent on spectrum and as a result could not effectively invest in actually building networks, so it is hoped this will go some way to making sure this does not happen again.

At the same time, Ofcom has today published new plans to enable spectrum sharing in the hope of supporting innovation and local coverage initiatives across the UK.

For example, some of the airwaves up for auction could support new uses of wireless technology in areas such as logistics, mining, agriculture and many other industries that are coming to rely on the internet of things (IoT).

Others could be used by organisations or even community groups to build and operate local mobile networks, in a similar fashion to how community-backed organisations such as B4RN have built out full-fibre broadband networks.

Ofcom is therefore proposing to make additional spectrum available for shared use in the 1800MHz and 2300MHz spectrum bands, which can already be used by today’s devices. The regulator is also planning to let third parties use spectrum that the ‘big four’ MNOs own, but are not currently using.

Spectrum sharing is becoming a key demand among mobile stakeholders as they consider how to help the UK fully exploit the potential of 5G, particularly after Brexit.

Speaking at a recent parliamentary roundtable on 5G spectrum, hosted by the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum (Pictfor), member of Parliament Stephen Timms and Nominet’s Pasquale Cataldi commented: “We should be sharing spectrum and infrastructure if we want to be leaders in 5G. To extend connectivity, we need to enable business models which support increasing connectivity and consider how smaller players can be involved.”

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