Community broadband activists and some in the telecoms industry are concerned that the rollout of wireless broadband networks in rural areas could be hampered if, as widely expected, the government decides to license the use of part of the 5GHz band of the radio spectrum.
In January, the government announced that it was deregulating most of the 5GHz band, making it legal for people to run wireless local area networks such as 802.11a hot spots without buying a licence, registering the network, or paying a fee.
It also said that it was still looking into the feasability of allowing organisations and commercial operators to run fixed wireless networks in what it called "band C" -- between 5725MHz and 5875MHz.
Band C is currently primarily used for military radar, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has refused to allow this spectrum to become licence-exempt. Instead, the MoD is insisting on a number of restrictions, including forcing operators to register all their users and pay a fee to the Radiocommunications Agency (RA).
There has been growing concern within the broadband community since this was made public a few weeks ago. Wireless is key to the rollout of high-speed Internet services in parts of the UK where fixed-line services such as ADSL aren't available.
Several groups of local activists have already launched fixed broadband networks running at 2.4GHz -- which the government deregulated last summer -- and some of these people believe that 5GHz would be an even better frequency at which to run a community network, if it was licence-exempt.
The RA warned key members of the wireless broadband sector several weeks ago that band C would be what it called "light licensed" spectrum, a move that "left people stunned", according to one source close to the issue.
Intellect, which represents over 1,000 IT and telecoms companies, confirmed that there is concern within the industry about the implication of making band C licensed.
"It could jeopardise the business case for using 5.8GHz," Graham MacDonald, Intellect's senior radio executive, told ZDNet UK, adding that there was a significant danger of extra costs being passed on to users.
A final decision about band C hasn't officially been made yet, but it appears that the MoD is in a strong negotiating position over the future of the spectrum.
"The MoD, who are the primary users at present, aren't unhappy about sharing the spectrum with civilian users as it will reduce their licence fee, and should also mean that equipment prices fall," a RA spokeswoman explained.
The MoD, though, is insisting that any equipment used at 5.8GHz should support dynamic frequency selection (DFS), which means a user's connection will automatically change to another channel if it detects military radar, and transmit power control (TPC), which ensures that a network transmits at the lowest power level possible.
MacDonald confirmed that some companies believe they could be seriously disadvantaged by these restrictions. The MoD is also insisting on exclusion zones -- near key radar sites -- and some form of licensing or registration scheme, so that networks can be eliminated if they interfere with military radar.
"The MoD will block [the opening up of 5.8GHz] if we don't do these things," explained the RA spokeswoman.
The idea of having to pay to use spectrum that many people had expected would be licence-exempt has led to particular concern in some quarters, though. If wireless is the key to achieving a true Broadband Britain, then the government could be seen as putting more obstacles in the way of rural broadband activists by forcing additional costs and responsibilities upon them.
The RA says that if network operators are indeed forced to pay licensing fees and to register every user, then the process will be as easy as possible.
"It'll be simple and fully electronic. We don't want to be pushing pins into a map," said the RA spokeswoman.
The fee structure could even be designed in favour of small rural networks, she added. "It could be disproportionately cheap for smaller users, such as those with fewer than 100 users, and more expensive for larger ones."
Even this might not be enough to satisfy some, though, including one insider who commented that "it's licensing, without any quality of service guarantee."
The RA confirmed that anyone launching a 5.8GHz network would have to be aware that it wouldn't be prudent to guarantee any service levels, as there's nothing to stop someone else also setting up their own rival system and causing serious interference. "We won't prevent people wiping out each other's networks," explained the RA spokeswoman.
The RA expects that its work on 5.8GHz should be completed by the summer, with the issue being treated as a top priority.
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