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Ofcom updates mobile airwaves plan

UK broadcast regulator reveals plans to release airwaves to improve mobile services for customers aiming to help more areas get better comms services

On the back of the UK government’s proposal to bring much-needed improvements to rural communities’ mobile communications services, the country’s telecoms and broadcast regulator Ofcom has announced updated plans to release crucial airwaves to meet the growing demand for mobile broadband and support the roll-out of 5G.

Ofcom first proposed rules requiring mobile companies to increase coverage in rural areas in exchange for winning discounted spectrum through the auction in December 2018.

Following this, mobile operators BT/EE, O2, Three and Vodafone discussed an alternative “shared rural network” plan, and on 25 October, aiming to address one of the most contentious issues being felt by rural communities, the UK government set out its plans to make radical improvement on mobile phone coverage across the country.

To date, the government had considered the forthcoming spectrum auction from UK comms regulator Ofcom to be the best opportunity for improving mobile coverage.

Historically, Ofcom has used coverage obligations attached to the operators’ licences to improve mobile coverage, and had proposed to include two coverage obligations in the next auction in 2020 – which would require the two operators who acquire them to reach 90% coverage by 2024, in exchange for a discount.

“Warmly welcoming” the new commitments’ promise to make “a real difference” to mobile customers across the UK, an Ofcom spokesperson said: “We will now press ahead, with industry, on the urgent task of getting better mobile services to people wherever they are.”

To make sure mobile companies stick to the commitments, Ofcom said it will write conditions into operators’ spectrum licences and monitor, and report, on their progress in meeting the new commitments.

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Moreover, in light of the new commitments, the regulator has confirmed it will no longer be proposing to include coverage obligations in its new spectrum auction in 2020, as it believes the operators’ new agreement will achieve higher coverage than the requirements it could have set through an auction.

The new auction plans will have the fundamental aim of supporting competition while maintaining Ofcom’s duty to ensure spectrum is used efficiently. To promote competition, we are still proposing a 37% cap on the overall spectrum that any one mobile company can hold following the auction.

“We’re pressing ahead with plans to release vital airwaves to improve mobile services for customers,” said Ofcom spectrum group director Philip Marnick. “Together with mobile companies’ commitments to improve coverage, this will allow more areas to get better services and help the UK maintain its place as a leader in 5G.”

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