Ofcom accelerates the release of new wireless spectrum
Proposals to add two 80 MHz WiFi channels, and open up public sector airwaves for cellular, are more important than the O2/3UK row
The UK mobile industry is gripped by speculation about who may bid for Telefonica’s O2 UK arm now that Hutchison’s acquisition has been blocked. Liberty Global, BSkyB or a group of private equity firms (Apax Partners, CVC Capital Partners and KKR, according to local media reports) are said to be in the frame, or Telefonica might decide to float the unit to raise the money it needs to reduce its debt.
However, far more important for the future of competition in the UK mobile and multiplay market are the consultations being conducted by regulator Ofcom, which could result in more spectrum being available to support mobile broadband, as well as the new revenue streams which MNOs badly need to counteract the UK’s price wars.
The regulator may have taken an old-fashioned view of the market, in its opposition to a Hutchison/Telefonica deal which would have reduced the number of mobile operators – when the real competition is about quad play. But it is generally a progressive force when it comes to innovative approaches to boosting spectrum, and to experimenting with new approaches to licensing which can increase capacity quickly and encourage new, non-MNO service providers (another reason the take on Hutchison did not take account of the full market landscape).
Late last week, Ofcom issued a consultation paper proposing to open up more 5 GHz spectrum for WiFi, trying to address looming problems of congestion and consequent slowdowns or unreliable service. The regulator proposes the use of two additional 80 MHz channels for WiFi, which would bring the total up to six bands and bring the UK into line with the US.
“People are placing greater demands on their broadband, so we need to ensure they aren’t let down by their wireless connection,” said Ofcom’s group director of spectrum, Philip Marnick. “We also want to close the gap between advertised speeds and the wireless performance that people and businesses actually receive. So we’re exploring ways to open up more airwaves for WiFi.”
These issues are becoming urgent as the most-used band, 2.4 GHz, becomes congested (some providers actually disable that option in some areas rather than risk the anger of users who encounter a poor experience). Such trends will drive more usage to the 5 GHz band, where some providers already report congestion issues in some dense locations.
The Ofcom consultation focuses specifically on sub-band in 5725 MHz-5850 MHz, which is used for WiFi in various countries, including the US, but not in Europe. That would open up an additional 125 MHz of spectrum, which, when combined with existing 5 GHz airwaves, would support two new 80 MHz channels or a single 160 MHz channel. This sub-band could be opened up without international consent – for instance, there would be no need to wait for the next World Radio Conference in 2019, as would be the case with a brand new WiFi band.
One challenge will be to ensure “appropriate protection”, as Ofcom put it, for incumbent users of the frequencies, particularly satellite service providers. The regulator said early technical studies suggest this sharing will be possible, though it is sure to meet some resistance from the satellite community, which has sometimes accused the UK agency of prioritizing wireless broadband over the many other uses of spectrum.
Interested parties have until 22 July to respond to the consultation.
This is the latest in a series of spectrum proposals Ofcom has made in 2016. In the government’s 2016 budget plan, announced in March, a commitment was made that 750 MHz of public sector spectrum below 10 GHz would be made available for mobile services by 2022. Ofcom’s first step towards that goal was to publish a consultation on releasing airwaves between 3.8 GHz and 4.2 GHz.
Such bands are important – probably, in the medium term of higher significance than the upcoming auction of 700 MHz spectrum as operators become focused on capacity more than coverage. Bands above the 2.6 GHz 4G spectrum have been hard to deploy in the past, but with densification and small cell networks, they become highly valuable to support high bandwidth applications and new types of services.
These may be provided by MNOs or other companies, if the spectrum regime is liberal enough to encourage new entrants. In 3.8 GHz to 4.2 GHz, Ofcom is evaluating sharing mechanisms – the exercise is focused on incumbent public sector users, but once there is a concept of sharing a band, the discussion quickly moves to sharing between service providers, as happened in TV white space spectrum and the US’s 3.5 GHz band. Shared access and light licensing will all help to boost innovation and competition from previously non-mobile players, especially in growth areas like the Internet of Things.
Ofcom has said its consultation, to understand the opportunities and impact related to more intensive sharing in this band, is particularly focused on new innovative services.
This band is the first to be considered under the new Framework for Spectrum Sharing, published in April. The framework outlines the elements to be taken into account when assessing opportunities for shared access to spectrum. These include the characteristics of use, for both incumbent and prospective users; barriers that may limit the extent of current or future sharing; and regulatory tools and market technology enablers that match those relevant characteristics and barriers.
The deadline for comments is June 9, and Ofcom will publish an update on its findings this summer.
Of course, some spectrum will still be auctioned and licensed in the traditional way, including the 700 MHz band, which is being eyed by MNOs as a way to get closer to universal mobile broadband coverage, to support IoT services and, in some cases, to pioneer 5G.
Earlier this year, Ofcom set out plans to clear the 700 MHz band, currently used for digital terrestrial television (DTT), by no later than the second quarter of 2020, earlier than it had originally expected.
It also said that 25 MHz of spectrum in the middle of the band would be allocated away from DTT. Ofcom had considered five options for this unallocated ‘center gap’ – DTT; audio PMSE (mainly wireless microphones); emergency services communications networks; machine-to-machine communications; and mobile data – but said that its provisional view was that the first four “would not support optimal use of spectrum”, and that DTT will have sufficient spectrum in the 470 MHz to 694 MHz band. The mobile community wants these sub-700 MHz airwaves considered for cellular too, but that discussion has been postponed until at least WRC-19.
Ofcom wants to divide the 700 MHz band into a 9 MHz ‘guard band’ to protect DTT from interference; 30 MHz for mobile uplink; the 25MHz ‘center gap’ in between the uplink and the downlink; 30 MHz of downlink; and a 3 MHz guard band between 700 MHz and 800 MHz.