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Wireless ISPs Call on Ofcom to Fix Broken UK Spectrum Auctions UPDATE

Sunday, Jun 17th, 2018 (7:26 pm) - Score 1,273

The UK Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (UKWISPA), which is the official trade body for Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) broadband providers, has called on Ofcom to “modernise the way it allocates spectrum resources” because they claim that the current approach of national auctions is “no longer fit for purpose“.

The organisation notes that “huge chunks of our precious spectrum is routinely allocated … by national auction,” which means that an organisation (e.g. Mobile Network Operators like O2, Vodafone, EE or Three UK) can be granted exclusive use of parts of the spectrum for the entire nation, albeit often “with no obligation to actually use it“. In fairness some bands, such as 800MHz and the future 700MHz (here), do attach obligations.

In most cases, such as parts purchased by the big mobile operators, they only ever install transmission equipment where there are large populations – i.e. less than 20% of the land mass,” said the Chairman of UKWISPA and Managing Director of ISP Boundless Networks, David Burns.

UKWISPA Statement

So what does that mean to us and why does this matter? Quite a lot more than you might think actually…

1. National allocation means that huge parts of the UK do not get access to the services that the operator promises, as it is not cost-effective for them. Think 3G and 4G – does it work everywhere? Do we all still lose signal and drop calls as we drive or walk around?

2. If operators focus in high population areas, it follows that our suburban, semi or deep-rural homes and businesses miss out most. On TV channels, on mobile coverage, and most irritatingly of all, on fast broadband.

3. 20% efficiency on any national resource is a national disgrace. Just imagine if only 20% of roads were available because the government allocated them all to a couple of road hauliers. Or what if only 20% of NHS hospital beds could be used because they had all been purchased by private hospitals. It is unthinkable that our regulator should operate in such an arcane way.

4. 5G will present exciting new opportunities and business models which will enable lower cost services for enterprises and major hubs such as hospitals, airports, and train termini. But these won’t be accessible with legacy national approach to allocation of spectrum.

Ofcom is about to repeat this approach again with the proposed auction of some spectrum in the 3.6 to 3.8 GHz band. This is likely to be purchased by the large mobile companies for use in their urban 5G roll-outs over the next 10 years. It is estimated that it will be used in around 13% of the UK landmass

At the same time, the UK’s independent fixed wireless broadband industry (a mostly privately-funded group of over 100 companies across the UK) are desperate to help deliver high performance broadband to many of our rural homes and businesses, whereas full fibre [FTTP] access may take years or even decades. This band would allow them to install 100Mbps broadband to millions of properties starting right away, at very low cost.

Instead UKWISPA suggests that Ofcom could insist that operators “use it or lose it” and allocate spectrum on a more flexible geographic basis. “Rather than allocating everything to a single operator, let them buy the most valuable chunks, securing the best deal for the Treasury, then let other players purchase the rights to use these frequencies in the other areas,” said David.

The above approach is one that is being played with in a few other countries, such as the USA, and UKWISPA fears that if Ofcom doesn’t change their approach then “there is serious risk that the UK will be left behind in the global digital economy over the next decade.” We’ve asked Ofcom to comment and will update again if a response arrives.

NOTE: A recent study from Plum into Fixed Wireless and 5G opportunities (here) suggested that such technologies could offer attractive cost levels and rapid deployments in areas where “full fibre” (FTTP/H) roll-outs might be unworkable (unless significant state aid is employed).

UPDATE 19th June 2018

A spokesperson for Ofcom told ISPreview.co.uk: “We have a duty to promote optimal use of spectrum, and we value all suggestions that could help us achieve this.” The regulator also noted that their recent consultation on awarding the 700MHz band included specific obligations for the different nations in the UK, and a focus on reaching rural communities.

Meanwhile the regulator intends to further consult on their future plans for the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz bands in the Autumn and as usual they will seek views from all stakeholders. On top of that they plan to consult later in 2018 on proposals to enable greater shared access between existing and new users (including new Broadband Wireless Systems) of the 3.8-4.2GHz spectrum band.

We suspect that UKWISPA will want to give their input to all that.

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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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1 Response
  1. Avatar photo 3G Infinity (now 4G going on 5G) says:

    There is some valuable truth here:

    i) current spectrum utilisation is much lower than would be thought

    ii) several countries, Sweden, Italy, Germany etc are advocating rural/urban splits the some spectrum on a beauty contest basis

    iii) use it or lose it should be replaced with “use it or lease it” much less onerous and just as flexible

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