EE more than doubles its UK 5G frequency holdings at end of spectrum auctions

BT-owned mobile operator wins 80MHz overall of 700MHz and 3.6GHz bands and announces roll-out of additional 3.6GHz capacity across the UK

Following the second, assignment stage of the auction of 5G spectrum by Ofcom, BT Group-owned operator EE claims that its new frequency holdings have set it up to provide customers with the best and most extensive 5G network in the UK.

Bidding in the principal stage auction for 200MHz of 5G spectrum ended in March 2021, drawing the relatively modest overall spend of just of £1bn, a figure regarded as good news for maintaining the UK’s 5G development. The assignment stage involved a single bidding round in which interested parties were able to bid for the frequency positions they preferred for the airwaves they secured in the principal stage.

Ofcom said that after submitting their assignment stage bids in the 3.6-3.8GHz band, bidders would have the opportunity to negotiate the frequency positions among themselves if they wanted to join together the airwaves they secured with spectrum they already held in the wider 3.4-3.8GHz band. The assignment stage ended with four operators investing a total of £1.379bn.

Overall, BT Group, bidding through EE, won 80MHz overall of the 700MHz and 3.6GHz bands that were on offer. It had invested £452m to secure the new spectrum in March 2021 before placing assignment bids with Ofcom and taking part in negotiations with other networks to establish the exact in-band position of the newly won capacity.

EE has now secured positions within the respective spectrum bands for an additional £23m cost, taking its total investment to £475m. It negotiated the ability to make a future spectrum trade, to obtain full contiguity for the holdings.

Looking at specific parts of the network that it now owns, EE secured 40MHz of 3.6GHz spectrum, doubling its current holdings. The company said that as it was the launch band for 5G, 3.4-3.8GHz allows for “exceptionally high” performance and capacity in areas with denser populations and can be accessed by all current 5G handsets.

With its new infrastructure secured, EE said it had already carried out work on a number of sites to allow the new spectrum to launch soon. It also secured 20MHz of paired and a further 20MHz of unpaired 700MHz spectrum.

The 700MHz spectrum is new to 5G services in the UK, but is already used extensively in Europe, and is supported on recent key customer handsets, including the iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S21. The spectrum band will support wider and deeper 5G coverage, including indoors, and help deliver better capacity overall.

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EE said it will roll out the 20MHz of paired spectrum extensively over the years ahead and will begin trials of the spectrum on a small number of new sites as early as this week.

The new 5G capacity will help support a growing customer base across BT Group, with EE recently passing one million active 5G users. At the beginning of April, EE reported that traffic on its next-generation network had more than doubled between October and December 2020 and that it had switched on next-generation network capability in 35 new UK towns and cities, including outdoor 5G coverage to some popular tourist spots, bringing the total of 5G locations to 160.

“Spectrum is the most vital investment a mobile network can make – the more a network has, the better the experience it can deliver,” said BT consumer division CEO Marc Allera. “We are pleased to have secured significant new capacity for the EE network at an excellent price.

“Combined with our existing portfolio, this new acquisition of valuable low- and mid-frequency spectrum will mean the EE network is set up well for the future.”

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