The UK telecoms regulator is consulting on a request from TalkTalk to vary concurrent spectrum access licences for 3.3MHz of radio spectrum in the 1800MHz band, which would support the ISP’s plan to launch a new broadband router with small cell based 4G (LTE) mobile femtocell technology inside.
The ISP first touted their tentative plans in 2014, when they pledged to “build a converged fixed-mobile offer using our 4G spectrum and femtocells, such a national roll-out would allow us to offer our customers seamless, unlimited and low cost connectivity in their homes and businesses, and significant opportunities to drive growth over the longer term.”
Femtocells are akin to miniature mobile phone base stations and these can harness your fixed line broadband connection in order to boost a mobile signal. A number of mobile operators, such as Vodafone and Three UK, already offer dedicated femtocell routers that can be used to boost indoor mobile signals and cut data or voice costs by offloading to a fixed line.
TalkTalk’s solution would involve using a tiny shred (3.3MHz) of low-power 1800MHz FDD GSM guard band spectrum, which the ISP picked up some years ago from Opal Telecom (guard band means an unused part of the radio spectrum between bands, which is usually used for preventing interference). Opal, which is now owned by TalkTalk, originally won this spectrum from Ofcom for £155k in a 2006 auction.
However the road to a viable product has not been an easy one and a combination of tricky licence conditions, limited support from hardware manufacturers (e.g. getting LTE and DECT manufacturers to support it), problems with making 4G work within the restrictive power limits and a tedious divorce from former MVNO partner Vodafone haven’t exactly helped.
Never the less TalkTalk’s R&D wing have already shown that their solution can deliver 4G download speeds of 16Mbps at up to 60 metres and Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) support is also possible.
TalkTalk is one of 12 licensees authorised to use the 3.3 MHz of shared spectrum in the 1800 MHz band, 1781.7-1785 MHz paired with 1876.7-1880 MHz, also known as ‘the DECT Guardband’. The licences were issued as technology neutral, subject to compliance with interface requirements IR2014 (GSM) or IR2045 (Concurrent 1781 MHz band) with a restriction to low-powered use.
The variation request seeks a modification to the permitted out-of-block emissions to allow the deployment of currently available femtocell technology without the need for additional filtering which would be required under the current licence terms.
Ofcom’s provisional conclusion finds that the potential for causing interference with other users of the spectrum is very small and as a result they deemed it “appropriate for us to grant TalkTalk’s variation request,” although this is still subject to the new consultation that remains open for responses until 31st May 2016.
The variation, if confirmed, would also be available on request to other concurrent licensees (Vodafone, UK Broadband Ltd., BT, COLT etc.). It’s worth pointing out that BT are working on a similar solution for their home broadband customers, which will no doubt benefit from their on-going merger with EE.
One disadvantage of all this is that any new service will require customers to upgrade their routers, although TalkTalk could solve that by launching the product as part of a special bundle and offering an upgrade to existing subscribers. But as it stands we still have no firm idea when TalkTalk’s new product might launch or even how close they are to unveiling it, but clearly progress is being made.