Google tight-lipped on UK spectrum bid

The web company has declined to say whether it will participate in Ofcom's auction of radio spectrum resulting from the digital dividend, citing a US ruling

Google has refused to comment on speculation that it might bid for radio spectrum in the UK, 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 analogue television and radio signals are switched off and replaced by digital.

On Thursday, Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, gave further details of how it would carve up and sell the spectrum ranges that will become available. 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, and Ofcom estimates that use of the digital dividend could inject as much as £10bn into the UK economy over the next 20 years.

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 US, which could see it become a wireless broadband player in that country.

However, according to a spokesperson for the web giant, the rules surrounding the US auction mean Google cannot say whether it intends to bid for spectrum in the UK as well.

"The federal [anti-collusion] laws that regulate the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] spectrum auction in the US prohibit us from commenting on our spectrum strategy anywhere else in the world," said the spokesperson on Friday. "We are not allowed to say anything that would affect anyone else's bid."

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

The UK digital dividend could comprise as much as 320MHz of spectrum from the 470-862MHz 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 late 2008 auction will be for the interleaved spectrum, and the late 2009 auction will be for the cleared spectrum.

The auctions will be held on a 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 programme-makers and events organisers, primarily for wireless microphones. These have to be analogue 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 spokesperson said on 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 utilises unused chunks of spectrum and is perceived to be a viable technology for wireless broadband. According to Ofcom's spokesperson, 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.