UK comms regulator Ofcom has updated proposals to release crucial airwaves to meet growing demand for mobile broadband and support the rollout of 5G.
To help improve mobile services and enable more people and businesses to access 5G networks, Ofcom is planning to release more mobile airwaves through an auction in spring 2020.
Improving mobile coverage
In December 2018, Ofcom proposed including coverage obligations in its auction rules. These would have required mobile companies to increase coverage in rural areas, in exchange for winning discounted spectrum through the auction.
Following this, the four mobile network operators – BT/EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – have discussed with Government and Ofcom an alternative ‘Shared Rural Network’ plan to deliver good quality 4G coverage to at least 92 per cent of the UK over six years.
On October 25th, the Government announced that the companies had each committed to reaching this target. The Government has also confirmed it will provide £500 million of funding for the plan. Ofcom welcomes this agreement, which Ofcom believe will provide significant benefits to mobile users across the UK.
To make sure mobile companies stick to the commitments, Ofcom will write binding conditions into their spectrum licences. Ofcom will also monitor, and report, on their progress in meeting the new commitments.
In light of the commitments, Ofcom is no longer proposing to include coverage obligations in its auction. This is because through the companies working together, the agreement will achieve higher coverage than the requirements Ofcom could have set through an auction. So Ofcom has published updated proposals for how its mobile auction will work.
Airwaves being released
The auction will involve companies bidding for spectrum in two different frequency bands.
The 700 MHz band. Ofcom is releasing 80 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band. These airwaves are ideal for providing good-quality mobile coverage, both indoors and across very wide areas – including the countryside. Releasing these airwaves will also boost the capacity of today’s mobile networks – offering customers a more reliable service.
The 3.6-3.8 GHz band. Ofcom is releasing 120 MHz of spectrum in 3.6-3.8 GHz band. These important airwaves are part of the primary band for 5G and are capable of carrying lots of data-hungry connections in concentrated areas. All four of the biggest mobile companies have launched 5G this year, and releasing these airwaves will help increase the capacity and quality of mobile data services.
The 700 MHz band is currently used for digital terrestrial TV and wireless microphones. The 3.6-3.8 GHz band is used for fixing links and satellite services.
How the auction will work
Ofcom has revised its proposals for next year’s auction, in line with its objectives to ensure the efficient and timely allocation of spectrum.
For next year’s auction, Ofcom plan to use a format known as ‘simultaneous multiple round ascending’. This approach, which is similar to its 2018 spectrum auction, involves two stages. It would work like this:
Principal stage. Companies first bid for airwaves in separate ‘lots’ to determine how much spectrum each company wins.
Assignment stage. Then there is a round of bidding to determine the specific frequencies that winning bidders will be allocated.
Winners of 3.6-3.8 GHz spectrum will have an opportunity within the assignment stage to negotiate their placements within the band among themselves. This will make it more straightforward for bidders to join together the new spectrum they win with their existing holdings, and potentially reduce the level of ‘fragmentation’ in the wider 3.4-3.8 GHz band.
Ofcom has a duty to ensure spectrum is used efficiently. Ofcom also ensure companies can compete fairly and customers have a strong choice of mobile networks. So to maintain strong competition, Ofcom is still proposing to place a 37 per cent cap on the overall spectrum that any one mobile company can hold following the auction. Promoting strong competition between mobile companies is important because it leads to better services for customers.
“We’re pressing ahead with plans to release vital airwaves to improve mobile services for customers,” advised Philip Marnick, Spectrum Group Director at Ofcom. “Together with mobile companies’ commitments to improve coverage, this will help more areas get better services and help the UK maintain its place as a leader in 5G.”
Ofcom welcomes responses to its proposals by December 9th. Ofcom then plans to publish its final decisions in early 2020, before starting the auction in the spring.