Google tight-lipped on U.K. spectrum bid

The company won't say whether it will participate in Ofcom's auction of radio spectrum, citing a U.S. ruling.

Google has declined to comment on speculation that it might bid for radio spectrum in the U.K., after Ofcom announced plans to auction radio frequencies as part of the "digital dividend."

The term "digital dividend" refers to the freeing up of radio spectrum over the next five years, when analog television and radio signals are switched off and replaced by digital.

On Thursday, Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator, gave further details of how it would carve up and sell the spectrum ranges that will become available in the U.K. as analog television and radio signals are switched off over the coming years. The spectrum could be put to use in a variety of ways, ranging from wireless broadband to high-definition TV broadcasting.

Auctions will take place in late 2008 and 2009.

There has been much speculation over Google's designs on radio spectrum. It is currently gearing up to bid in a similar auction in the U.S., which could see it become a wireless broadband player here.

However, according to a representative for the Web giant, the rules surrounding the U.S. auction mean Google cannot say whether it intends to bid for spectrum in the U.K. as well.

"The federal laws that regulate the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) spectrum auction in the U.S. prohibit us from commenting on our spectrum strategy anywhere else in the world," the representative said Friday. "We are not allowed to say anything that would affect anyone else's bid."

However, the representative said that because the FCC auction is due to take place in January, it might be possible to reveal more after that date.

The U.K.'s digital dividend could comprise as much as 320MHz of spectrum from the 470MHz to 862MHz range. Out of that, 112MHz will be freed up in "cleared spectrum," which consists of defined channels, and up to 208MHz could become usable in the form of "interleaved spectrum," a geographical buffer that exists between TV transmitters to prevent interference.

The auctions will be held on a so-called technology-neutral basis, which is to say that Ofcom does not mind what it is used for. The only exception to this principle is the spectrum used by program-makers and event organizers, primarily for wireless microphones. These have to be analog because digital wireless microphones would suffer from too much latency. This spectrum will be subject to what Ofcom calls a "beauty contest," rather than simply going to the highest bidder.

Ofcom's representative said Friday that the interleaved spectrum being made available could have interesting applications for not only local television, but also the burgeoning field of cognitive radio. Cognitive radio seeks out and utilizes unused chunks of spectrum and is perceived to be a viable technology for wireless broadband. According to Ofcom's representative, the regulator would be happy to see cognitive radio win out in the auction because it "can make use of downtime" and therefore boost overall spectrum efficiency.

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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