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UK government announces clearance of 700 MHz band for mobile use

Six years after first posing the idea, UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has managed to prise 80 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum from the clammy grip of terrestrial broadcasters.

The announcement was made by Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman, in keeping with government policy of claiming all the credit for these things at the 11th hour. He did so at the 5G World event, which has gamely proceeded with a three-day virtual 5G-fest because we’re not allowed to get together in person anymore.

“The smooth and successful completion of this massive infrastructure project ahead of schedule and under budget is a huge testament to the collaborative efforts of our partners,” said Warman. “We have overseen a quiet revolution in the airwaves which will lead to better mobile coverage for rural communities and unlock new ways for 5G to boost business productivity and improve people’s lives.”

That quiet revolution consists of taking six years to make a bit more low frequency spectrum available which, while it may help rural coverage, hasn’t really got much to do with 5G. If anything it will enable UK MNOs to pad out their appalling 5G coverage numbers without any of the bandwidth – yay.

Having said that, it’s still great news from a coverage point of view that we have another (small) chunk of low-frequency spectrum available for mobile. After all, nobody watches terrestrial telly these days, do they? And we do acknowledge that reallocating spectrum is trickier than it seems, especially when you have to physically replace antenna at the top of masts.

“The 700MHz programme is the largest broadcast engineering project since the digital switchover, and has been described as ‘performing open heart surgery’ on the nation’s television network,” said Paul Donovan, CEO of Arqiva. “Around 20 million UK households enjoy Freeview services so a key requirement for this project was that the vast majority of them wouldn’t even know it was happening.

“Recent events have underlined the importance of television in providing people with news, entertainment and connections to the wider world. I’m incredibly proud of our team that, alongside this clearance programme, has continued to support Freeview by maintaining the network that broadcasts its signals into homes every minute of the day.”

As Ofcom said earlier in the year, the newly-liberated 700 MHz spectrum will probably be auctioned-off at the start of 2021 along with some mid-band stuff. This is all great news, but the UK mobile industry hasn’t done a great job of using the spectrum it already has. Maybe its waiting for the next auction before springing into action.

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