O2 is seeking permission to run 3G services in spectrum dedicated to 2G, Dave Williams, the operator's chief technical officer, revealed on Monday.
Speaking at the 3GSM World Congress, Williams claimed that the only way to deliver cost-effective high-speed mobile services in rural areas across Europe was to use the spectrum currently used for GSM services.
"The long term 3G challenge is to build into rural areas of Europe," Williams told a press conference at 3GSM. "We've got to start the dialogue with the regulators on how to reuse 2G frequencies for 3G. This has to happen to be cost effective... we hope to start with France this year."
O2 spent billions of pounds at the start of this decade acquiring 3G licences in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. These licences give it the right to operate third-generation services in blocks of spectrum around the 2GHz frequency.
O2's GSM services run at 900MHz, and running 3G services at 900MHz is feasible on a technical level. However, the regulations governing the radio spectrum dictate that the 900MHz band must be used for GSM services only.
At present, O2's existing 3G services are concentrated in urban areas. Williams admitted that many people in rural areas opposed the construction of additional mobile phone masts, so converting existing base stations to 3G could help O2 to avoid lengthy planning disputes.
However, that would entail a reduction in its GSM coverage.
Williams admitted that the 2G spectrum in rural areas was "reasonably loaded", and that if its plan was approved some mobile users would have to be switched over to 3G.
Communications regulator Ofcom has indicated that it is keen to change the way spectrum is managed in the UK, so that companies have more freedom over the services they offer at a particular frequency.
Ofcom spokesman Simon Bates said on Monday that its Spectrum Framework Review: Implementation Plan, published in January 2005, considered whether the 2G bands should be liberalised.
"Ofcom is also conducting further economic and technical analysis of the issues with the assistance of external consultants. The conclusions of that analysis will — together with the responses to this consultation document — help form the basis for Ofcom’s decision on the issue," said Bates.
ZDNet UK's Graeme Wearden contributed to this report.