Fresh calls for 3G over 2G spectrum

Study claims that high-speed data could reach hundreds of millions more users if 3G used the 900MHz band, currently reserved for 2G

Mobile operators have renewed calls to open up GSM radio frequencies for the delivery of 3G data.

On Monday the GSM Association (GSMA), which represents the operators, released a study it had commissioned from analysts at Ovum. The report showed that allowing 3G to be used over the 900MHz GSM spectrum band — a process known in the industry as "refarming" the spectrum — would let an additional 300 million people in Asia, Europe and Africa have access to the more advanced mobile technology. 3G currently operates around 2000MHz, but employing lower frequencies would allow transmission over greater distances, as well as better indoor penetration.

According to the study, a 3G network operating in the GSM band would give 40 percent greater coverage than it would at 2100MHz — leading to a reduction in cost. Making 3G data services more cost-effective would, of course, help fend off rival technologies such as mobile WiMax — currently enjoying its greatest success in developing countries — but, interestingly, Ovum's study "does not attempt to address the potential competitive effects of refarming", according to the GSMA.

O2 and Vodafone currently use the 900MHz band for their GSM voice services, and both companies have previously called for refarming to be allowed. However, analysts say that, if those two operators were allowed to refarm their 900MHz spectrum for 3G services, rivals like T-Mobile and Orange — both of which use the higher frequency 1800MHz range for their GSM services — might object. The subject of 3G and the cost of its delivery is a sensitive one for operators, because of the multi-billion-pound cost of their licences.

The Ovum study calls for international co-ordination in the opening up of the 900MHz band, particularly due to the interference problems that could otherwise arise. "900MHz is one of the most used spectrum bands in the world and regulators must be careful to avoid interference with existing GSM services or interference across national borders," said Stewart Anderton, principal consultant at Ovum.

Tom Phillips, the GSMA's chief government and regulatory affairs officer, said that "national governments need to co-ordinate their spectrum policies to enable the widespread rollout of HSPA [enhanced 3G connectivity] in the 900MHz band."

Ofcom told that the regulator was aware of the GSMA's study and that it would publish a consultation document on spectrum refarming later this year.