Mobile broadband can fill the gaps in the government's proposed 2Mbps universal broadband commitment without state funding, but only if outstanding spectrum issues are resolved, the operator 3 has said.
Hugh Davies, 3's director of corporate affairs, said on Thursday that the use of lower frequencies could help roll out mobile broadband in rural areas due to their superior range, but discussions around the release of such spectrum were still "edgy". Many rural areas are currently badly served by both fixed and mobile broadband, due to the low returns operators would get for rolling out services in such sparsely populated areas.
"If we can come to an agreement on the spectrum issues, we can fund the rollout," Davies told delegates at a Westminster eForum on Lord Carter's Digital Britain report. "We don't need any extra funding, because we believe we can find the opportunities to build the business."
A key issue for mobile networks seeking to invest in new infrastructure is that of 'refarming' 2G spectrum, which is of a lower frequency than current 3G spectrum, for 3G services. The European Commission and Ofcom have both backed this approach.
However, disputes between operators — some of whom already use lower frequencies than others — have led to an impasse. This situation is delaying the auction for the 2.6GHz band, which could be used for LTE, the successor to 3G, because operators say they will not know how much to bid unless they know whether they can refarm their 2G spectrum.
Two broadband funds were proposed in the Digital Britain report, one for 2Mbps universal broadband coverag and one for the rollout of next-generation broadband access. The first will be funded by money left over from the digital switchover, while the second will rely on a 50p-per-month charge levied on each copper phone connection.
At Thursday's eForum, BT complained about the idea of wireless operators such as mobile phone networks being able to draw on the second fund in order to provide high-speed broadband services. The company's policy and regulation chief, Emma Gilthorpe, said the fund taxed fixed-line customers, so should only benefit fixed-line providers rolling out fibre.
"It is a deep concern of ours that, for the funding for the rollout of fixed networks it would be possible for non-fixed operators to bid for those funds, having not had their customer base taxed in the way a fixed operator's customer base will be taxed," Gilthorpe said.
Anna Bradley, from the Communications Consumer Panel, also suggested that a consequence of the 50p levy could be people "stepping back from having fixed lines" in favour of going mobile-only.