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Preliminary Winners of Ofcom’s UK 5G Mobile Auction Revealed

Wednesday, March 17th, 2021 (7:34 am) - Score 6,600
5g mobile signal bars uk

Ofcom has today revealed the winners from the “principal stage” of their latest 5G focused mobile (mobile broadband) spectrum auction for the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz bands, which saw operators spend a total of £1.356 billion across the various bands and EE (BT) appears to have gobbled up the most (£452m).

Just to recap. The regulator was auctioning off 80MHz of spectrum frequency in the 700MHz band and 120MHz of spectrum in the 3.6-3.8GHz bands to EE (BT), Vodafone, Three UK and O2. The combination of these should increase the total amount of airwaves available for mobile services in the UK by 18%, which in turn may result in faster data speeds and better coverage.

NOTE: 700MHz was formerly 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), while 3.6-3.8GHz tends to be better for ultrafast data speeds in urban areas.

The auction included a 37% (416MHz) cap on the overall amount of spectrum that any one mobile operator can hold following the auction, which effectively limits the spectrum that some operators can acquire in the award. For example, EE was limited to acquiring up to 120MHz, while Three UK can only acquire 185MHz, Vodafone could grab up to 190MHz and O2 was largely unrestricted.

We should point out that all the major operators already have some 5G specific spectrum. At present EE, Vodafone and O2 all have a 40MHz, 50MHz and 40MHz slice, respectively, of the 3.4GHz band, while Three UK holds 140MHz of spectrum across several similar bands thanks to their previous £250m acquisition of UK Broadband Ltd several years ago (this includes a 20MHz slice from the 3.4GHz auction).

As such we were expecting EE, Vodafone and O2 to bid hard in order to try and secure a large block of contiguous spectrum to aid their 5G plans (i.e. a block of 100MHz+ is considered ideal – Three UK already has this).

Principal Stage Winners
· EE
— 2×10 MHz of paired frequency spectrum in the 700 MHz band at a cost of £280,000,000

— 20 MHz of supplementary downlink spectrum in the 700 MHz band at a cost of £4,000,000

— 40 MHz in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band at a cost of £168,000,000

· Three UK
— 2×10 MHz of paired frequency spectrum in the 700 MHz band at a cost of £280,000,000

· O2
— 2×10 MHz of paired frequency spectrum in the 700 MHz band at a cost of £280,000,000

— 40 MHz in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band at a cost of £168,000,000

· Vodafone
— 40 MHz in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band at a cost of £176,400,000

The total revenue raised from the principal stage is £1,356,400,000 with all money to be paid to HM Treasury, but it’s not quite over yet. The final phase is called the “assignment stage“, which enables operators to negotiate (bid on) placements of their spectrum within the 3.4-3.8GHz band. Ofcom hopes this will reduce the level of fragmentation and help operators to create more blocks of contiguous spectrum.

However, the assignment stage will be subject to whether the companies wish to enter the negotiation period. If they do, Ofcom will publish the dates for the negotiation period.

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

“With bidding in the principal stage concluded, we now move to the next stage of the auction where the operators will have an opportunity to negotiate the position of their spectrum holdings in the wider band. This is an important step forward in bringing better mobile services to people – wherever they live, work and travel.

These airwaves will help improve coverage for the mobile services people use today, as well as supporting the UK’s position as a world leader in 5G.”

The final results of the auction will be published once all stages are complete (we expect the assignment stage to take about 4 weeks), although it does look like most operators now have a good chunk of spectrum for 5G services (e.g. Vodafone now owns 90MHz of the 3.4-3.6GHz band) and this comes attached to a 20-year licence term through to 2041.

Ahmed Essam, CEO of Vodafone UK, said:

“This auction will boost our 5G network capacity. It means we will have the spectrum we need to further the roll-out of 5G to our customers, bringing high speed connectivity and opening up new opportunities for products and services. We have been successful in the 3.6 GHz band and have avoided expenditure on low band spectrum, where it is our strategy to refarm over time our significant 900 MHz holdings to carry 5G traffic.”

Mark Evans, CEO of O2, said:

“We are pleased to announce that Telefónica UK (O2) has secured a significant share in the latest spectrum auction, investing £448m to obtain 40Mhz of 3.6GHz and 20MHz of 700 MHz FDD.

This demonstrates Telefónica’s continued commitment to the UK Market and the very best connectivity for our customers. We are delighted with the result, which secured the right spectrum at a fair price.

This additional spectrum will allow for continual improvement in our network. We pride ourselves on being a champion of reliability and quality coverage and look forward to continuing to invest in digital infrastructure to build Britain’s connectivity, for the benefit of all.”

Robert Finnegan, CEO of Three UK, said:

“We are delighted to have won two 10MHz blocks of low frequency spectrum at the auction. This triples the amount of low frequency spectrum we own and will have a transformative effect on our customers’ experience indoors and in rural areas. Coupled with our existing low frequency spectrum and the UK’s largest 5G spectrum holding, we are in a fantastic position to deliver a great network experience for our customers now and in the future.”

Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer Business, added:

“EE has secured vital new spectrum in this auction which, when rolled out into the network, will allow us to grow our position as the UK’s number one 5G network. EE was first to launch 4G and 5G, and this auction outcome is great news for our network, our customers and BT.”

We should finish by pointing out that a lot of the new 5G kit being deployed today can already support the new bands, which should enable operators to bring it into service fairly quickly, once the auction process has finished.

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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.
Leave a Comment
42 Responses
  1. Anna says:

    I managed to leave Three yesterday without penalty due to the network problems I was having. She said to me, and I quote ” it’s never goodbye it’s see you again, I hope once we sort our rubbish network out you might consider coming back”

    Now that’s someone in the Network team – and she was based in the UK, says it all no? (call was recorded if you ever wanted to actually hear it)

    1. JP says:

      Yeah lets not get a rare UK worker sacked now for being honest with you eh.

    2. AQX says:

      The chances of his calling being listened to as part of quality is relatively low but also doubtful they’d sack him, if you release the call then they’ll be forced to get rid of him. So delete the recording and let’s not get someone who understands your point of view sacked.

    3. Anna says:

      No I respect the honesty. I was just saying if he feels like that maybe he needs a talking to – these are the people after all who look after the network – in other roles people would have concerns if the person responsible had such a lax attitude.

    4. JP says:

      It’s not his job to look after the network, by ending your contract and waiving early termination charges that is the way to get issues like this looked into,

      who’s job it is with regards to Three to maintain the the network is a weird one, as the UK networks now seem to have outsourced mast ownership and management so it could be MBNL that actually are to blame for some issues but that’s just an assumption.

    5. Aled says:

      Can I just say, that sometimes before we all get a bit RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE (!) that it is perfectly natural, that if a customer calls up to complain about a “rubbish network”, that it is quite normal and pleasant for a call centre handler to perhaps apologise for the “rubbish network” in that area and allude they hope they can fix the “rubbish network” in the future.

      I am 99.9% certain the employee did not mean to say “our network is 100% rubbish”, but localised bad signals and network congestion are a given for any network on a bad day. At least they apologised and we all move on with our lives.

      Half of these problems could be resolved by checking Cellmapper coverage for antenna positions, and b) accepting that horrendously cheap packages will likely be slower.

    6. Randy says:

      ” JP ” is the self appointed overnight mobile expert. Go read the boring posts on the forum.
      I know fancy words and am now a mobile expert when I wasn’t a few months ago

    7. DBM says:

      I value JPs posts in the forum, at least they are constructive and helpful.
      I don’t find them boring at all. You on the other hand …

    8. Ryan says:

      Why would you post this Anna?

      Seems very irresponsible to me. And for some of us three isn’t “rubbish” at all. In fact for me they’re faster than all the others and they’re the only ones in our little town with 5G for two years now.

      You need to grow up.

    9. JP says:

      Aaaaw “Randy”, you feeling left out buddy. Never mind, I’ll spice it up a bit and dedicate the next post to you 🙂

    10. JP says:

      Cheers Biggie 🙂

  2. Zakir says:

    winning chunk of spectrum but its all about how they can maintain the network well

    1. JP says:

      Yeah right, I’m coming across 5G in a couple places that’s held back by backhaul issues.

    2. Anna says:

      JP I’ve seen 400mbps on Three – in a field with nothing else for miles. I was on a train mind and we were stationary.

      Apart from that across the country – 10 at best:(

    3. JP says:

      Anna – I’ve achieved over 1Gbps on one mast with Three, this was a fairly urban mast to, but at most masts 5G waived around an average of 150mbps,

      I can’t say I’ve seen 5G performance as bad as 4G on Three but my testing currently is finding that mast sites need reconfiguration and kit upgrades to initially better serve their areas and then backhaul will need upgrades to support the bandwidth required.

      This morning I was rudely awoken by neighbours at 5am, so lying in bed I tested 4G and saw it get about 40Mb/s and now its back to a couple megabits, however this mast doesn’t seem to offer 256QAM modulation on the downstream and caps out at 64QAM, and during day struggles to get above 16QAM which is suggesting a hardware upgrade is needed.

      Hopefully now the networks have scope of the future there will be a quick adoption of new kit that supports their existing and newly gained licensing and they’ll start moving in the right direction.

  3. JP says:

    Will be interesting to see how fast these licenses can be adapted to existing NR-NSA infrastructure, based on the amount of ‘upgrade’ work Vodafone had showing the past couple of weeks at existing 5G sites I’m guessing the switches will be flicked as the ink dries.

  4. Michael V says:

    Yes it’s quite exciting.
    So happy Three have got a good block.
    Vodafone haven’t bid for any 700mghz, they got 900 & 800 they can refarm for 5G-NR.

    1. JP says:

      They’ve got about 17mhz of paired spectrum at 900mhz, I doubt they’ll mess with Band 20 as its their anchor for NR-NSA afterall.

    2. Santi says:

      So this is basically bad news for those on Vodafone. No matter what they say, had they wanted to avoid the 700 MHz from the beginning their 3600/3800 network would have already covered London entirely. It is true that they have a lot of 2600 and also 1400 but their 900 MHz band is split into 2/3/4G. Are they killing 3G already? Because they are using 2100mhz for 3G. This means a fast 5G… but only outdoors for years. Even O2 with double the amount of users and half the spectrum will have better 5G

    3. JP says:

      Can’t see it being bad news for Vodafone customers, as I’ve said already they have enough low band spectrum to fulfil 5G requirements, the additional spectrum they have for use is just a bonus.

      How this reflects in different regions is to be seen due to Huawei deployments essentially being mute to any further improvements (including N78 upgrades)


    4. Santi says:

      I’ll rephrase: bad news for those on Vodafone for the next couple of years. Their 5G is spotty at best and even though 20mhz doesn’t make much of a difference it will help the others have a much more dense 5g to add other layers too. Vodafone relies on high bands and will use 900 but that won’t happen for a while, perhaps end of next year? Meanwhile 5G dies at your door when you get home. Vodafone’s more shows that I should have good indoor 5g signal but I can’t get it outdoors either. Might be my phone but 3 different taima and handsets have the same issue. I know 700 is not magical but it helps with penetration. And that spectrum is available now and is in addition to existing. So yeah, they have 90 but currently split between 2/3/4G. Killing 3G takes time…

  5. Jamie Simms says:

    Vodafone’s position is an interesting one, I am very surprised that they did not bid for any 700mhz.

    I notice that they will be moving most of their 900mhz over to 5G and I expect that they will move some of their 800mhz over as well in high capacity areas like city centre where they already have 2100mhz and 2600mhz for 4G. Not sure whether they will refarm 800mhz or use DSS to share it remains to be seen.

    1. JP says:

      I’m sure DSS will be playing a key part in most UK roll-outs to be honest,

    2. ToneDeaf says:

      Can I ask – can 5G mobiles on sale today adapt to operators “refarming” frequencies to operate on 5G. The comment from Vodafone on use of 900MHz for 5G has made me curious.

    3. JP says:

      Yes it seems so.

  6. Adrian says:

    Why did Vodafone pay for than the others for their 40Mhz chunk of 3.6-3.8 GHz spectrum?

    My understanding was that if their were more bids for a spectrum lot type than lots available then it went in to another round and the price for all of them was increased.

    1. 5G_Infinity says:

      Possibly because O2 went for 40 rather than 30 and also to stop EE going above 40MHz

  7. Billy Nomates says:

    How the government makes money out of thin air.

    Good news for EE/O2/Three customers.

    1. JP says:

      Erm and Vodafone….

    2. Billy Nomates says:

      “Erm” not as much.

    3. JP says:

      How so, Vodafone has 10mhz paired 900mhz and also holds a bunch of additional spectrum suited for use on 5G…

  8. M says:

    Crazy amounts of money. I’ll look forward to see how this helps Three. And as a result Smarty.
    I would say it’ll be interesting to see how it helps Tesco mobile but as they are restricted by O2’s traffic management is it fair to assume they won’t see an improvement from this?

  9. Aled says:

    What is the rollout timeline for the 700Mhz spectrum?

    Does it involve new antennas, software, licenses, etc. Or could they use existing infrastructure and just activate the 700MHz spectrum for customers with the right antenna?

    Asking, cause I want to know if my EE 4G+ mobile broadband, in rural area, is likely to get upgraded anytime soon?

  10. Joe says:

    Anyone know what happens to the remaining 20MHz of 700MHz downlink only spectrum that doesn’t appear to have been awarded?

    1. Aled says:

      I understand there was 80MHz to purchase, and the latest update of this page lists all 80MHz winners.

    2. JP says:

      EE brought the SDL chunk to pair with initial paired spectrum.

    3. Joe says:

      Yeah I was confused by the previous article,
      Which said that there were 4x 10MHz of SDL in 700MHz up for grabs instead of 4x 5MHz.

  11. NC says:

    I am not an expert at all but it seems that Vodafone didn’t do very well here? Can anyone explain after this auction, in a ranking order who will have the best 5G network in terms of spectrum? Thanks

    1. Michael V says:

      Vodafone felt they don’t need 700mhz. They’ve got 900mhz to refarm. That low band will work fine.
      They’re in need of 3.6ghz more.
      It’s more important in what they do with it & how they deploy it.

      Three & EE were in more need of 700 as EE only have a 5mhz block within 800mhz band.
      All their other spectrum is mid to high band.
      Same for Three.

  12. Buggerlugz says:

    Should give them something to pay health workers a decent wage then….oh forgot they’ve got more nuclear warheads to make now…..

    1. M says:

      Please, that was planned years ago with the funding planned also. No Boris is bow looking to build his tunnel under the Irish Sea, that’s where the billions will be spent next, after HS2 and the worlds most expensive single nuclear power station whilst also being no different to any other nuclear power station… when it’s not your own money it’s easy to squander it as you see fit. They certainly aren’t spending it on FTTP to every U.K. doorstep, which would be the best use of the endless billions they are happy to waste and would actually benefit the masses.

  13. Michael V says:

    Here’s the results. From O2, Three, vodafone.


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