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Ofcom Reveal Final Results of UK 5G Mobile Spectrum Auction

Tuesday, April 27th, 2021 (7:51 am) - Score 8,832
5G Mobile Wireless Radio Mast

The telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has today published the final results from their recent £1.38bn auction of 5G friendly radio spectrum in the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz frequency bands, which includes a few key changes from last month’s principal stage. Better mobile broadband coverage and speeds are expected.

The regulator has now auctioned 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 this year. The combination of these should increase the total amount of airwaves available for mobile services in the UK by 18% and result in better network performance.

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 limited the amount of spectrum that some operators could acquire (e.g. EE faced the biggest restrictions here as they already own a lot of spectrum). But so far, the participants seem to be happy with the outcome.

Ofcom’s auction also complements their previous 2018 release of spectrum in the 3.4GHz band (here). 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 some years ago (including a 20MHz slice from the 3.4GHz auction).

The Final Results

One of the regulator’s key goals with the latest auction was to reduce spectrum fragmentation, not least by enabling operators in the final “assignment stage” to (bid on) placements of their spectrum within the 3.4-3.8GHz band. The aim was to help operators create larger blocks of contiguous spectrum to aid their 5G plans (i.e. a block of 100MHz+ is considered ideal – Three UK already have this).

A number of the operators involved submitted bids during the assignment stage, which used the second price rule to determine successful bids. This resulted in an additional £23 million being raised (all from EE), which brings the overall total paid by operators to £1,379,400,000 (all of this revenue will go to HM Treasury). This might seem like a lot of money, but it’s fairly small to modest so far as mobile auctions go.

We note that O2 and Vodafone also entered into an agreement to trade some of their 3.6-3.8 GHz band spectrum, which should help them to both reduce fragmentation and build bigger blocks for better service. The move will, subject to Ofcom’s rubber stamp, create a contiguous block of 80MHz for O2, and ensure good proximity of Vodafone’s blocks totalling 90MHz of spectrum.

Ofcom 2021 5G UK Auction Winners

The awarded spectrum comes attached to a 20-year licence term until 2041.

Philip Marnick, Group Director, Spectrum at Ofcom, said:

“Now the auction is complete, these companies can use these airwaves to rapidly rollout better mobile services to people across the UK. This additional spectrum will also support the ongoing launch of new 5G connections for people and businesses. Importantly, the bidders also have the flexibility to make trades, so they can optimise use of the spectrum they have won in the auction with their existing airwaves.”

Marc Allera, CEO BT’s Consumer Division, said:

“Spectrum is the most vital investment a mobile network can make; the more a network has, the better the experience it can deliver. We’re pleased to have secured significant new capacity for the EE network at an excellent price.

Combined with our existing portfolio, this new acquisition of valuable low and mid frequency spectrum will mean the EE network is set up well for the future, and can continue to provide customers with the best and most extensive 5G network in the UK.”

At this point it’s worth noting that the addition of more spectrum is, by itself, not a magic performance boost as mobile signal quality can still be highly variable. Equally, if operators can’t feed their cell sites with enough data capacity, then that may remain a significant performance limitation, particularly at peak times.

On the other hand, 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. Likewise, all of the major operators are currently investing billions of pounds to both deploy 5G kit and, at the same time, upgrade many of their sites with better fibre optic capacity links.

All of this should be a big help, particularly as Standalone 5G (SA) networks begin to replace Non-Standalone 5G (NSA) hardware in the future (NSA is aided by existing 4G systems and doesn’t support all the features that the new 5G mobile technology was designed to introduce, such as ultra-low latency times).

However, this is unlikely to be the last 5G spectrum auction we see. Ofcom has yet to release any of the millimeter Wave (mmW) bands for operators, which exist at much higher frequencies (e.g. 26GHz) and have more spectrum to spare. Such bands are excellent for short-range multi-gigabit speed data transfers (e.g. useful for fixed wireless links or covering busy shopping areas), but are fairly useless at improving wider mobile coverage.

UPDATE 7:55am

Some additional comments just came in.

Mark Evans, CEO of O2, said:

“This year O2 is investing more than ever in its network to improve coverage and experience. Securing contiguous blocks of spectrum is crucial to harnessing the true power of 5G – we will have the strongest indoor and outdoor connectivity and an ultra-reliable frequency.

O2 is a champion for coverage and reliability, and remains committed to responsibly and securely improving the network experience for all our customers across the UK. This deal with Vodafone is further evidence of our commitment to customers and we’re hugely excited about the possibilities of our 5G network.”

Ahmed Essam, CEO of Vodafone UK, added:

“Over the last year Vodafone has kept the UK connected. We have invested in our network to deliver brilliant coverage for both calls and data, where and when our customers need it. And we have connected those most in need, from NHS and care workers to children needing to get online to continue their learning at home, and job seekers who have been left without work due to the pandemic.

The result of this auction and our agreement with O2 will help us continue our mission of connecting our customers for a better future. It means we have the best possible spectrum to continue giving our customers a fast and reliable 5G service. It will also enable us to open up amazing new possibilities for our enterprise customers, putting Britain at the forefront of innovation in vital areas like assisted surgery, remote training, and factory automation.”

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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
23 Responses
  1. Dave says:

    ‘At present EE, Vodafone and O2 all have a 40MHz, 50MHz and 40MHz slice’
    Are you not repeating yourself on the 40MHz line there Mark?

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      It’s a “respective” statement, so EE has 40MHz, Vodafone 50MHz and O2 40MHz of the 3.4GHz band.

  2. anonymous says:

    EE said:

    “EE network is set up well for the future, and can continue to provide customers with the best and most *expensive* 5G network in the UK.”

    I think extensive should be swapped for expensive 🙂

    1. Drew says:

      It’s still the best performing network. If the others performed better they could charge more.

    2. qwerty says:

      Absolutely, rip off would be another good one to use. Monopolistic another one too. Has the best speeds, yes just, but also owns the majority of the fibre back haul network through Open Reach.

  3. Andy says:

    For those of us who use Freeview, it’s EE who have been awarded the frequencies currently used by the COM7 multiplex. Therefore, this will be the start of the final clearance of TV from the 700MHz band. I should think that EE will want to start using it as soon as possible.

    1. Jamie Simms says:

      Andy- The spectrum has been clear since 2020 as advised by OFCOM when the last Com7 multiplex was turned off on the Isle of Man

      EE have actually enabled it this morning on a number of sites for testing and I expect it to be live for customers with the latest handsets very soon

    2. Twitter user says:

      Jamie, it’s reported to already be live to customers

    3. Jonesey says:

      Jamie – The Isle of Man receive all their Freeview channels from Winter Hill

  4. Square Eyes says:

    ” 700MHz was formerly used for Digital Terrestrial TV services. ”

    This is why there are so few HD channels on FreeView?

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      The adoption of digital signals and new codecs (better compression) mean you can fit more channels into the remaining 470Mhz to 700Mhz spectrum range. Quite a lot of channels exist within this (many more than under the old analogue days), but it still costs money to run HD broadcasts and demand for that has been limited.

      In short, no it’s not the only reason why there are so few HD channels on Freeview, but certainly mobile broadband connectivity has been given greater weighting in recent years.

  5. Jonesey says:

    According to my TV channel info display this morning I’m still receiving BBC News HD and other channels on COM 7 channel 55 which is on 746 MHz (centre frequency) from Winter Hill. Also confirmed at this site https://ukfree.tv/transmitters/tv/Winter_Hill

  6. Davood says:

    Thanks Mark.

  7. Smith says:

    This article explains why COM 7 is still going, for the time being, on Freeview:
    https://rxtvinfo.com/2021/ofcom-auction-o2-ee-and-three-take-former-freeview-frequencies

    1. Jonesey says:

      Thanks Smith, that’s cleared up some confusion, I was originally informed that the temporary Com 7 mux on channel 55 would be switched off by December 2020, the link you posted shows a clear by date of June 2022. The COM 7 mux frequency is in the middle of “extra” unpaired supplementary download block EE have acquired in the 700 MHz band which won’t affect EE’s paired frequency rollout in that band although there is a possibility viewers of COM 7 channels may start experiencing interference/blocking when nearby mast are switched on.

  8. Spectrum Hoarding Association says:

    OFCOM messed up spectacularly here by not writing in massive financial penalty clauses if any of the operators fails to reach 99% population of 5G coverage within 3 years of the auction concluding.

    Some areas of the UK will sadly never see radiowaves on that spectrum before the end of the decade.

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      Some……….don’t you mean “most”? I expect nothing from the carriers with regard to 5G in my locale for at least a decade, even then it’ll be a half-assed excuse with undeliverable expecations for whatever G with a number in front of it, they have by that point.

  9. Rocra says:

    Why didn’t operators swap so each could get a contiguous band in the 700 MHz band?

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      They have to wait till the auction is over to do this among themselves.

    2. THB says:

      The 700MHz spectrum is split into three parts: Uplink paired (703-733MHz), supplementary downlink (738-758MHz), and downlink paired (758-788MHz). To use this in the real world each operator needs both uplink and downlink, so the auction was split into 5MHz pairs i.e.

      Lot 1: 703-708MHz uplink + 758-763MHz downlink
      Lot 2: 708-713MHz uplink + 763-768MHz downlink
      Lot 3: 713-718MHz uplink + 768-773MHz downlink
      etc.

      So O2, EE and 3 each won 10MHz uplink + 10MHz downlink each such that EE has the top 10MHz of uplink and top 10MHz of downlink, O2 has the bottom 10MHz of uplink and downlink and 3 has the middle 10MHz of uplink and downlink. EE won all of the supplementary downlink.

      There’s a graph of this in Ofcom’s documents on page 7: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/192413/statement-award-700mhz-3.6-3.8ghz-spectrum.pdf

  10. Me says:

    All that money into government back pockets, nice. Well let’s hope the 5G roll out pushes forward now and into rural areas too.

    1. Vincent brindle says:

      Many Rural areas can’t get good 4g, let alone 5g.I remember being in the outskirts of Scarborough a few years back with shocking coverage…

  11. George says:

    Mark, is there a strong enough economic argument for the operators using mm-wave spectrum given the propagation can be so poor?

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