Radio spectrum that was previously reserved for voice calls and text messaging is now available for bringing the internet to rural areas, as Ofcom has allowed the reuse of 2G spectrum for 3G mobile broadband services.
The 'refarming' of the 900MHz and 1800MHz spectrum became permissible on Thursday, after years of deliberation and legal wrangling between the regulator and various mobile operators. In a statement, Ofcom said the move would benefit rural communities, while also boosting indoor mobile broadband coverage.
Ofcom said spectrum refarming would create "greater network capacity allowing more customers to be served and to enjoy higher mobile broadband speeds", and provide "improved quality of coverage allowing customers to use mobile broadband in more locations with greater consistency".
The GSM spectrum was allocated in the 1990s with strict limitations on its use. However, as it is of lower frequency than the 2.1GHz spectrum that is used for 3G services, it can propagate further, making it ideal for carrying mobile broadband services over great distances and into buildings.
O2 and Vodafone use 900MHz spectrum, which is particularly advantageous for tackling long distances, and Orange and T-Mobile use 1800MHz. When Ofcom said in 2008 that it wanted to kick off the auction process for the 2.6GHz and 800MHz spectrum that can be used for high-speed '4G' mobile broadband services, T-Mobile and O2 launched a legal challenge, arguing that they would not know how much to bid for the newly-released spectrum until they knew whether they could reuse the spectrum they already had.
The legal challenges dragged on as a result of a report in 2009 from Kip Meek, the independent spectrum broker at the time, who said operators had to face limitations on the amount of new spectrum they could buy at auction, based on their existing holdings of high- or low-frequency 2G spectrum. The coalition government removed this obstacle in July, and Everything Everywhere — the merged operations of T-Mobile UK and Orange UK — duly dropped its legal threat in November.
The European Commission, meanwhile, has been pushing for spectrum refarming since 2007, although it only formally approved the practice in 2009. Along with other member states, the UK was supposed to allow refarming as of May 2010, but that was delayed due to the general election. O2 claimed it should be allowed to start refarming at that time anyway, but Ofcom refused. O2 subsequently lost a Competition Tribunal appeal against that decision.
The auction for 4G spectrum, which was originally supposed to happen in 2008, is now set to go ahead in the first quarter of 2012. The Long Term Evolution (LTE) services that will use that spectrum are only likely to appear here in 2014 at the earliest. This means that, largely due to the wrangling over spectrum refarming, the UK will be around two years behind the rest of the world in rolling out 4G.
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