The government has said that the digital dividend spectrum may be auctioned by the end of the year, with services to start by 2012. The auctions, which have been delayed by legal challenges and points raised during consultation, will release spectrum that is expected to be used to improve wireless broadband services in Britain.
The spectrum plans were passed by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to telecoms regulator Ofcom on Tuesday. They represent the government's final position on five spectrum bands which can be used for mobile coverage: 800MHz, 900MHz, 1.8GHz, 2.1GHz and 2.6GHz. Initial proposals had been made in May 2009 by Kip Meek, who was appointed by the government to establish the best use of radio spectrum for mobile services. The government subsequently launched a consultation, leading to Tuesday's revised plans.
"We have listened carefully to the views put forward during our consultation and have made appropriate changes, taking into account the interests of both industry and consumers," said Digital Britain Minister Stephen Timms in a statement. "The release of new spectrum will speed up the realisation of next-generation mobile broadband, benefitting mobile users across the country."
The government has made several changes to Meek's initial proposals, partly after receiving feedback through the consultation and partly because of the merger of Orange and T-Mobile, which will affect the quantity of spectrum individual operators will hold.
Key changes include a requirement for the successful bidder of two spectrum lots in the 800MHz band to build-out coverage to 99 percent of the population. The proportion of spectrum that an individual operator can own has also risen, from 2x60MHz to 2x90MHz. Existing 2G spectrum will become available, as expected, for 3G and 4G services, but it will be "liberalised in the hands of the incumbents", according to BIS. Licences will become valid for an indefinite period and will be tradable.
Lee Sanders, a spectrum expert at research and consultancy company Analysys Mason, told ZDNet UK on Thursday that the plans were likely to be good news for mobile broadband roll-out but could be bad news for market entrants. "On the plus side, the coverage obligations are likely to mean mobile broadband is potentially pushed out there quicker and further than otherwise," he said. "On the downside, the spectrum caps don't seem to be encouraging increased competition."
Sanders said he thought the auctions would now be held "probably in 2011", a statement which agrees with Ofcom's prediction of the first half of 2011. BIS was slightly more optimistic. A spokesperson told ZDNet UK on Thursday: "We would like this to take place by the end of 2010. But that might be difficult and we are prepared to hang on till 2011."
The 2.6GHz auctions were initially planned for 2008, but have been delayed by a range of factors including legal disputes by operators. Part of the 2.6GHz spectrum most appropriate for WiMax is likely to be auctioned first, followed by the rest of the 2.6GHz band and the 800MHz band at the same time. The digital dividend spectrum will be freed up nationwide in 2012 when analogue television is turned off, meaning mobile broadband services using this spectrum band can be deployed nationwide.