The UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has proposed to defragment (no.. not their computer hard disks) the 3.4-3.8GHz radio spectrum bands after next year’s auction, which could enable mobile network operators to get the best performance and save money on their new 5G ultrafast mobile broadband networks.
As a general assumption 5G networks, which are only just starting to rollout across the United Kingdom, tend to work at their best when they have access to large contiguous blocks of radio spectrum. At present the only operator to hold such a thing is Three UK (H3G / UKB), which harbours 140MHz of 5G friendly spectrum and that includes a single 100MHz block in the aforementioned bands (rivals tend to have 50MHz or 40MHz blocks).
The above situation is all thanks to one of Ofcom’s recent decisions (here). At the time the regulator said, “We do not consider it likely that any benefit to [Three UK] of gaining access to 100 MHz of contiguous spectrum, as opposed to separate 84 MHz and 20 MHz blocks, would be so significant as to provide H3G with an unmatchable competitive advantage over its competitors.”
Nevertheless today’s new consultation agrees that 5G is still “likely to perform best using large, contiguous blocks of spectrum,” although at present this would not be possible without operators agreeing to trade spectrum (easier said than done). On top of that the next auction in the 3.6GHz – 3.8GHz bands will only free up 120MHz of spectrum (i.e. not enough to give more than a single operator access to a contiguous holding of 80MHz).
NOTE: The main advantage of a large contiguous block is that it avoids higher equipment costs (i.e. operators can use a single antennae, rather than several for bands that are wide apart).
Ofcom proposes to solve this problem by including new measures in the upcoming auction which could facilitate defragmentation of the band.
In order to facilitate defragmentation of the 3.4-3.8 GHz band, we are minded to impose a restriction on winners of less than 20MHz of 3.6-3.8 GHz spectrum to bidding only for the top or bottom of the 3.6-3.8 GHz band in the assignment stage of the auction.
In addition, we are also minded to include a negotiation phase, within the assignment stage of the auction, during which winners of 3.6-3.8 GHz spectrum would have the opportunity to agree the assignment of frequencies in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band between themselves.
This document sets out our revised proposals and two possible sub-options of the negotiation phase. One sub-option, which we considered in the December 2018 consultation, would require unanimous agreement among the winning bidders of 3.6-3.8 GHz spectrum. The other sub-option, which have set out in this document in light of stakeholders’ comments, would allow for partial agreement in the absence of unanimous agreement.
Ofcom intends to consult on this proposal until 10th July 2019 and they will then publish their final decision on the upcoming award of spectrum in the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz bands later this year. At present the goal is still to conduct the related auction next Spring 2020, at least the regulator hasn’t yet said anything different but delays seem to be par for the course in mobile land.