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Ofcom Allow UK ISP TalkTalk to Tweak 1800MHz Guard Band for 4G

Thursday, September 29th, 2016 (12:55 pm) - Score 2,426
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Ofcom has approved a request by TalkTalk to vary its licence for 3.3MHz of radio spectrum in the 1800MHz “DECT guard band” (1781.7-1785MHz paired with the 1876.7-1880MHz block), which supports the ISP’s plan to add small cell / femtocell based 4G (LTE) Mobile into its broadband routers. The regulator also hopes to open the band up more generally to other uses.

The related frequencies are part of a band used within the EU to provide mobile services. In the UK, this spectrum forms part of a “guard band” between spectrum used by mobile networks and that used by cordless (DECT) home phones, which helps to avoid interference and retain compatibility.

At present there are 12 licensees who are authorised to use this spectrum on a low power shared access basis (e.g. BT, Vodafone, Telefonica UK / O2, UK Broadband Ltd.) and one of those, TalkTalk, has been trying for several years 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.

As a quick recap, femtocells are like miniature mobile base stations and these can harness your fixed line broadband connection to boost a mobile signal or offload mobile data/voice onto a fixed line network (i.e. save money). Both Vodafone and Three UK already offer dedicated femtocell routers (e.g. Sure Signal) that can be used to boost indoor mobile signals.

After a lot of work TalkTalk’s R&D wing has been able to show that their solution could deliver 4G based download speeds of 16Mbps at up to 60 metres from their router and Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) support is also possible, which would be a useful boost for their ambitions with MVNO partner O2 (BT have been working on something similar with EE). But first they had to wait for Ofcom’s earlier consultation to complete (here).

Ofcom’s Statement

We have today agreed to a request from TalkTalk, one of the holders of a CSA licence, to vary their licence in order to remove restrictions on the use of standard LTE femtocell equipment, which is now widely available.

This will facilitate a use case (for TalkTalk and any other CSA licensee who requests the same variation) that relies on deployments of LTE femtocells at consumer premises. For the avoidance of doubt.

At the same time Ofcom has also launched a related consultation (this is separate from the above decision) in order to examine whether there is a case to trigger a change in use of the frequencies covered by these DECT guard band licences so as to enable high power Mobile Broadband use, licenced to a single user.

However the above approach would be complex and take a lot of time, not least because it might require Ofcom to revoke existing licences and hold an auction of a new high power mobile licence. Some of the licence holders might not be too happy about that. As such the regulator will also consider the possibility of opening up the band to a wider range of potential users under a continuation of their low power shared access regime.

The above idea of adopting a more flexible “shared access” regime appears to be at least partly inspired by TalkTalk’s request. Ofcom suggests that it could result in similar mobile broadband femtocells at home or as an indoor coverage booster for MVNO operators / businesses. Alternatively it could be used to provide additional capacity for mobile networks, such as at locations where the 1800MHz band is congested.

Ofcom’s new consultation on these proposals will run until 8th December 2016. In the meantime TalkTalk can finally move forward with their plans to integrate 4G technology into future home broadband routers, although we’ll probably have to wait a little while longer until they’re ready to produce the final hardware and service.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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