Ofcom proposes UK spectrum shake up

UK communications watchdog Ofcom on Thursday announced plans to allow for the refarming of 2G mobile spectrum for other services and technologies.

An initiative being spearheaded by Finland, France and Portugal is paving the way for deployment of UMTS in the spectrum bands formerly reserved for GSM.

Because of its lower frequency, UMTS900 would be able to provide between two and four times more coverage than the most commonly used 2GHz band as well as increased indoor coverage.

While Ofcom’s consultation is less specific, looking at the reuse of the 900MHz spectrum for a number of different means including mobile broadband, it essentially means the UK is jumping on the UMTS900 bandwagon.

The consultation, which covers the UK spectrum used by Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile and Orange for their 2G networks, highlights that in line with the existing European GSM Directive, the licences for this spectrum presently limit its use to 2G technology.

Two different bands are presently used for 2G – 900MHz is used by Vodafone and O2 only; 1800MHz is used by all four 2G operators. “The consultation looks at how these spectrum bands could be used for 3G and other technologies, and the effect that changing the use of these key spectrum bands could have on competition and consumers,” Ofcom said.

Traditionally, such proposals have had some critics, typically those WCDMA-only operators which do not have licences for spectrum in the 900MHz band, as well as from GSM players who operate only in the 1800MHz band.

But in this case, Ofcom’s scheme might find more resistance. While the proposals state that most of the spectrum should be retained by Vodafone and O2, for their own use, some spectrum should be released by each to ensure other operators also have access to the band.

In fact, the amount of spectrum released should be enough preferably to allow three additional operators to access the band, the watchdog said.

A Vodafone spokeswoman described Ofcom’s move as a “weighty proposal” and said the operator would let its feelings be known in due course.

Such an award could be held as soon as 2009 with the winners potentially able to use the spectrum from 2010. Participation in the award would be limited to parties who do not already hold 900MHz spectrum.

Ofcom also proposes to remove technology-specific restrictions on the use of the 1800MHz band and to make licences tradable, giving the current holders the option to transfer rights to use the spectrum to another party. These changes could take place in 2008.

Going forward, similar changes could also be applied to the spectrum band currently used for 3G services, at 2100MHz, Ofcom said.

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