Ofcom has announced a consultation which could result in a drastic improvement in mobile coverage across the country.
The telecoms regulator has been under pressure from mobile operators O2 and Vodafone to let them reuse their 900MHz spectrum for 3G services. The frequency is currently restricted to 2G use only.
Although they already use spectrum around 2100MHz for their 3G operations, the operators argue that using the lower frequency would improve transmission distances and indoor penetration, thus requiring fewer masts and bringing down the overall cost of 3G deployment. According to Ofcom, such a move could bring £6bn in benefits to the UK economy.
"We can't see it, touch it or hear it, but radio spectrum is central to our lives and we are using mobile devices more than ever before," said Ofcom's chief executive, Ed Richards, on Thursday. "Our proposals are designed to make more spectrum available for high-speed mobile broadband services across the whole of the UK and to ensure that the UK mobile market continues to be one of the most competitive and innovative in the world."
Ofcom's desire to allow the so-called "refarming" of 900MHz spectrum brings it in line with the European Commission, which in July threw its weight behind the idea by announcing it would repeal the GSM Directive of 1987, the agreement that reserves 900MHz spectrum for 2G.
But there is an as-yet-unresolved aspect of the refarming debate. Although O2 and Vodafone have 900MHz spectrum, their rivals T-Mobile and Orange run 2G services in the 1800MHz band — a frequency with less coverage potential than 900MHz. Ofcom is now proposing that O2 and Vodafone should retain the lion's share of 900MHz, but that enough spectrum should be released to allow three other operators to transmit at the lower frequency. That spectrum would be assigned by auction.
Crucially, Ofcom is also proposing to make all the relevant spectrum — at 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2100MHz — tradable, thus allowing operators to transfer licences. The regulator also wants usage restrictions to be lifted on the 1800MHz frequency, as well as 900MHz, potentially allowing both frequencies to be used for a wireless technology that is neither 2G- nor 3G-based.
Ofcom also considered and provisionally dismissed two other tranches of spectrum that might be used for 3G services. One option was the spectrum at 2600MHz, which is coming up for auction early next year. Although operators have been keen to secure it as an extension band for 3G-derived services — and may yet do so to keep rival technologies like WiMax out of the market — the nature of the frequency makes it even less of a long-range technology than 2100MHz currently is, and so it could be unsuitable for this wave of liberalisation.
Low-frequency, long-range spectrum will also be freed up in the next few years through the so-called "digital dividend" — the result of analogue TV and radio signals being switched off. However, Ofcom is not keen to utilise this spectrum (798-862MHz) for mobile services because it is unlikely to be used for that purpose across Europe, thus making it less likely that manufacturers will want to produce equipment for use at that frequency.
Ofcom's consultation closes on 29 November.