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Ofcom eyes fresh spectrum to meet mobile data crunch

The telecoms regulator has taken the first step in freeing up additional spectrum for future mobile broadband use, opening up a consultation on the process due to end in June
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor on

Parts of the digital TV band may be up for grabs for mobile broadband services, Ofcom has said, as it begins a new consultation process just as the previous digital switch-over is finishing. 

The telecoms watchdog published the first part of the consultation process, which could eventually give the 700MHz frequency to mobile broadband services, on Thursday (PDF). However, any potential auction of the spectrum would not take place until after 2018, it added. Currently, 700MHz is allocated to digital TV in Europe.

Spectrum bands diagram

Ofcom has begun a consultation on the potential use of 700MHz frequency for mobile brandband services from 2018. Image credit: Ofcom

The organisation said the process was designed to "secure long-term benefits from scarce spectrum resources in UHF bands IV and V" and would close on 7 June. Ofcom said that with demand for mobile data services growing rapidly — largely driven by increases in the amount of video and data-intensive apps being used on smartphones and tablets — the amount of data being used by 2030 could be 300 times as much as 2012.

A Cisco Visual Networking Index report in February said that the amount of data being used on mobile devices increased 133 percent during 2011. Globally, Cisco expects mobile data usage to reach 130 Exabytes per year by 2016 — 18 times the current amount.

Use of 700MHZ for mobile broadband

Ofcom is looking to establish a "long-term strategic approach" to secure spectrum for mobile broadband services. It also wants to be able to respond to unknown future service and international harmonisation developments of spectrum, such as use of the 700MHz frequency for mobile data. Some other countries, including the US, already use the 700MHz frequency for high-speed mobile data services.

"The 700MHz band, which is currently used to deliver Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) and other services on an interleaved basis, represents the most attractive option for providing additional lower frequency spectrum. This is because there is now global momentum behind it being harmonised for mobile broadband," Ofcom said.

A resolution was passed at the 2012 World Radio Conference (WRC 12) in February in Geneva to enable the 700MHz band to be used for mobile broadband in Europe, the Middle East and Africa after the next World Radio Conference in 2015. However, despite an international push to harmonise frequencies used, Ofcom said it would take a long time to put an agreement in place and that it would be unlikely to happen before 2018.

"Enabling the use of the 700MHz band for mobile broadband in the UK would require a new international frequency co-ordination agreement. This could take several years to complete and will depend on the position adopted by other European countries," Ofcom said. "Our current view is that the earliest date this could be achieved is 2018, provided there is sufficient agreement in Europe."

It added that a long-term approach was needed as a number of different services, such as DTT, mobile broadband and white-space devices either already use parts of the UHF IV and V bands, or would do in future. The analogue TV switch-off has already freed up parts of the IV and V bands — specifically the 800MHz frequency — for future mobile broadband use ahead of the repeatedly delayed spectrum auction now due to take place at the end of 2012.

The new 4G Apple iPad cannot deliver 4G services in the UK, even when they become available, as it operates on the 700MHz and 2.1GHz frequencies, whereas the UK currently uses the 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2.6GHz bands for mobile data. As a result Ofcom has said it has already received complaints about the way the device is marketed in the country.

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