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Ofcom UK Aim Next 5G Mobile Spectrum Auction at January 2021

Monday, August 3rd, 2020 (12:47 pm) - Score 3,580
5g signal

The UK telecoms regulator has today confirmed that their much delayed auction of the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz radio spectrum bands, which could boost new 5G mobile network coverage and mobile broadband speeds further into the Gigabit (1000Mbps+) territory, will not now take its first bids until January 2021.

The auction has already suffered significant delays due to the long-running dispute over coverage obligations on the 700MHz band, which was finally settled via the £1bn industry led Shared Rural Network (SRN) agreement. The SNR requires the targeted sharing of existing masts and new masts in poorly served areas, which aims to extend UK 4G geographic coverage to 95% by the end of 2025.

NOTE: 700MHz was previously used for Digital Terrestrial TV services. Lower frequencies like this are ideal for delivering wide geographic coverage as they travel further and penetrate better into buildings (complemented by 800MHz and 900MHz). Meanwhile 3.6-3.8GHz tends to be better for ultrafast data speeds in urban areas.

Since then the process has also been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and a legal challenge from O2 (here), as well as some loosely similarly complaints from Vodafone and Three UK following the banning of Huawei. Spectrum ownership is the lifeblood of the industry and thus any auction of new bands tends to always attract competitive disputes between operators and the regulator, which frequently causes long delays.

Despite this the regulator has today revealed (here) that it hopes to start the formal auction process in November 2020, with a view to bidding getting under-way in mid-January 2021, although they caution that further delays are still possible due to potential litigation or COVID-19 related restrictions. As ever, when it comes to such auctions, we wouldn’t bet on bids going ahead in January just yet.

Philip Marnick, Ofcom’s Spectrum Group Director, said:

“Demand for getting online on the move is soaring, and the pandemic has only increased the importance of mobile services to people and businesses. Releasing these airwaves promptly will bring a much-needed capacity boost, helping mobile customers get a better service.”

Assuming everything does proceed then Ofcom intends to auction off 80MHz of spectrum frequency in the 700MHz band and 120MHz of spectrum in 3.6-3.8GHz band. The combination of these two will increase the total amount of airwaves available for mobile in the UK by nearly a fifth (18%). A 37% (416MHz) cap will also be imposed to reflect the overall spectrum that any one mobile company can hold following the auction.

The cap effectively limits the spectrum that some operators can acquire in the award. In other words, BT will be limited to acquiring up to 120MHz, while Three UK can only acquire 185MHz, Vodafone may only grab 190MHz and no limits will be imposed upon O2 due to their current holdings.

The final outcome will ultimately depend upon who bids for what, but more spectrum tends to equal better mobile broadband speed and that’s going to be key for 5G. At present EE, Vodafone and O2 only have access to a 40MHz, 50MHz and 40MHz slice – respectively – of the 3.4GHz mobile band for their 5G services.

Meanwhile Three UK has 140MHz and that includes a 100MHz block of contiguous spectrum in the 3.4-3.8GHz bands (here), which is known to be the sweet spot for 5G. Rivals will also be trying to build a similar block but that will involve a secondary assignment stage of negotiation, following the main bidding war, which has made some operators uncomfortable.

mobile spectrum holdings uk dec 2018

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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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9 Responses
  1. Avatar Buggerlugz says:

    Whilst it has to be a good thing that more spectrum will eventually be sold off, I do wonder if any of the players have the actual capacity to and from their backbone ( going from their 5g mast kit) to actually support the speeds 5G offers.

    Currently it becoming pretty obvious that some carriers (eg: Three) are struggling to provide the level of backbone bandwidth to maintain decent speeds using their existing 4G mast technologies.

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      We’ve actually seen some promising signs from Three’s newer 5G deployments, with some speeds beating EE by a fair old margin, although they currently have the weakest coverage so that’s a bit of a moot point.

  2. Avatar Ian McKenzie says:

    Does it mean that 4G is going to get slower because all the frequencies will be used for 5G?

    1. Avatar liveswired says:

      It shouldn’t but I’ve know doubt Three haven’t been putting their money where their mouth is.

      I’d say the current state of Three’s disasterous and crippled 4G network is down to intentional throttling to boost their 5G without having to invest properly in upgrading their core network.

      All the conspiracy theorists have no need to work, knowing Three they’ll destro 5G all by themselves.

  3. Avatar liveswired says:

    Three’s 4G was also promising but it is now completely crippled and unreliable, it is shocking and I’ve no doubt their 5G will be exactly the same.

    Three should be stripped of all bands they currently own and have them auctioned off.

    Three having the monopoly of 5G would be a disaster for the future of mobile internet.

  4. Avatar Kunta slave says:

    I hope 3 will win a large part of 700Mhz.

    1. Avatar liveswired says:

      yeah, with Three’s service they’ll help put an end to 5G altogether. The only upside is they may be forced to fix their broken network.

  5. Avatar liveswired says:

    On Three 4G you have to invest on a VPN just to load websites. It must be in the small print somewhere.

  6. Avatar Terek Drotter says:

    What on earth has gone wrong with Three lately? Lots of service disruptions, many of which not even acknowledged by their CS let alone publicly.

    Their 4G network is oversubscribed and crippled in many places combined with their awful TrafficSense traffic shaping/prioritisation service.

    They were so promising at the start but have rapidly gone down the pan, no doubt not helped by the departure of some of their top people.

    It would seem that EE and Vodafone are generally the better networks out of the 4. Of course, YMMV depending on where you are and your use case!

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