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Ofcom eyes rural coverage for next spectrum auction

farmer using digital tablet

With another spectrum auction creeping up on us, Ofcom has started to throw its weight around with the terms and conditions.

While 4G and call coverage is certainly improving in the UK, Ofcom has pointed towards the difference between urban and rural environments as a concern. This is partly to be expected, denser environments are simpler places to improve connectivity and much more commercially attractive, though Ofcom has been banging this drum for a while. We’re not too sure anyone is paying too much attention.

“Mobile coverage has improved across the UK this year, but too many people and businesses are still struggling for a signal,” said Philip Marnick, Ofcom’s Spectrum Group Director. “We’re particularly concerned about mobile reception in rural areas.

“As we release new airwaves for mobile, we’re planning rules that would extend good mobile coverage to where it’s needed. That will help ensure that rural communities have the kind of mobile coverage that people expect in towns and cities, reducing the digital divide.”

Looking at the numbers, the digital divide is no-where near the same problem as faced in other places around the world, but it is present. Almost all homes and offices can get a good, indoor 4G signal from at least one operator; while 77% are covered by all four networks, up from 65% a year earlier. 91% of the UK’s geography has a good 4G mobile internet signal from at least one operator, up from 80% last year, while 66% has ‘complete coverage’ from all four operators.

These numbers are heading in the right direction, though they only tell part of the story. 83% of urban homes and offices have complete 4G coverage, the figure for rural premises is 41%, while there are some remote parts of the country where there is no coverage at all.

The next auction will take place in late 2019 or 2020, auctioning off the 700 MHz and the 3.6 GHz – 3.8 GHz bands. Although the mid-range spectrum will be the 5G prize to chase, the 700 MHz could prove useful for providing good-quality mobile coverage, both indoors and across very wide areas, including the countryside. This is where Ofcom will start throwing its weight around. The winning bids will have to:

  • Extend good, outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area within four years of the award
  • Improve coverage for at least 140,000 homes and offices which they do not already cover
  • Provide coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas

With telcos revving themselves up for every opportunity to grab as much of the valuable and limited resource as possible, Ofcom can dictate the playing field a bit. Those who want spectrum will have to play by the watchdog’s rules and start offering bufferless cat videos to farmers.

On the broadband side of things, there does also seem to be improvements. The number of homes which cannot receive 10 Mbps, the Ofcom threshold for acceptable broadband, has fallen to 2%. However, this still leaves 677,000 homes and offices without decent broadband, 496,000 of which are in the countryside. The last push for any project is always the hardest, though customers will have the universal broadband service to rely on, forcing telcos to extend their network, should they not be willing to do it themselves. This service will come into play during 2020.

On the opposite end of the scale, ultrafast broadband has improved, it’s now accessible to 50% of British homes and offices, while 1.8 million premises now have access to ‘full-fibre’ broadband. This is still very poor in comparison to other nations across Europe, though it is a step in the right direction.

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