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Ofcom may allow 3G over 2G

After Nokia shows it can be done, Ofcom may allow operators to reuse their 2G networks to offer improved 3G services
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Nokia has made what it claims was the world's first successful 3G call on a commercial network at a frequency of 900MHz — a band usually used for standard 2G voice calls.

As 3G currently operates around the 2GHz band, this lower-frequency call could open the way for vastly improved coverage and, crucially, better indoor 3G reception.

The call was made over the Finnish network Elisa, using Nokia's Flexi WCDMA technology to transmit 3G traffic through the previously GSM-only base station infrastructure.

Using the lower frequency can stretch coverage by as much as four times, so Nokia's advance could also lead to cheaper rollouts of 3G or HSDPA (3G's souped-up successor) in rural areas, as infrastructure costs would be lower. Ari Lehtoranta, senior vice president of radio networks at Nokia, said on Monday that the WCDMA900 call was "another testimony of Nokia's strong commitment to support operators in developing their offering to better meet the demand that they face in today's increasingly competitive environment".

Two UK operators — Vodafone and O2 — already use the 900MHz band for their GSM services. At the 3GSM conference in February of this year, O2's chief technical officer Dave Williams called for "dialogue with the regulators on how to reuse 2G frequencies for 3G". UK regulator Ofcom said at the time that it was conducting "further economic and technical analysis of the issues with the assistance of external consultants".

And on Tuesday, Vodafone's chief executive Arun Sarin said in an investor webcast that his company was also lobbying in some markets for the ability to "refarm" some of its 900MHz spectrum.

"If an operator came to us and asked us whether we could consider licence variation we would consider the request, but we would obviously have to conduct a lot of analysis and research into that request," a spokesperson for Ofcom told ZDNet UK on Tuesday. Asked about the analysis that was mentioned in February, the spokesperson replied that it was "still in the phase of evidence gathering".

There have traditionally been tight controls over which services can be uses in which parts of the radio spectrum. Ofcom's position, though, is that it is better to allow companies and organisations to decide the best use of the spectrum they control. However, existing licences — such as for 900Mhz — dictate that only 2G services may be operated.

Analyst Dean Bubley believes that allowing Vodafone and O2 to offer 3G services with better indoor penetration and overall range — not to mention cheaper infrastructure — could provoke complaints from other operators such as T-Mobile and Orange, who use the 1800MHz band for their GSM services. All these operators paid billions for their 3G licences. And, if Ofcom is willing to open up 900MHz to allow non-GSM services, promoters of entirely different technologies such as WiMax might also want access.

"Fundamentally there's going to be a lot of people saying that if you're going to change the rules then you need to change them completely," Bubley told ZDNet UK on Tuesday, adding that it could be argued that, "if you accept the principle of changing the use of spectrum, then it should be completely up for grabs".

Ofcom's spokesperson pointed out that the Ministry of Defence is already another major user of the 900MHz band, and reiterated the regulator's position that it endorsed technology neutrality. "As set out in the 2004 spectrum framework review, we said our long term goal for spectrum management was to remove any unnecessary restrictions on spectrum use," the spokesperson added.

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