Ofcom delays UK 700 MHz auction

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom waited until the end of the month to announce the 700 MHz auction won’t happen in January after all.

The most Ofcom was prepared to commit to was sometime in March, so expect another update towards the end of that month too. The reason given for the delay is ‘the coronavirus situation’ and, since there’s little sign that situation will be any closer to resolution in a month or two, you have to wonder why Ofcom didn’t just play it safe and aim for the summer. Perhaps it feared the operators would be distracted by being allowed back into the pub.

“We’re disappointed the auction will now be delayed although we understand the unique circumstances,” said a BT statement. “The auction and subsequent release of spectrum remains central to the future rollout of mobile networks and 5G. The economy’s recovery from Covid-19 is dependent on resilient digital infrastructure and we urge Ofcom to resist any further requests for delays.” We’re not aware of any statements from the other UK MNOs.

Even if the auction does go ahead in March, that will mark a year since the rules for it were specified. One reason for the delay may be that it took a further six months to get terrestrial broadcasters to hand over their 700 MHz spectrum. There’s also some mid-band spectrum on offer, to top up the 2018 auction.

It’s not immediately obvious why the current lockdown should be reason to delay this latest auction, unless they were intending to model it on cattle markets. It’s not like everyone isn’t set up to operate remotely and they’ve had at least a year to think about it. Perhaps the government hopes operators will bid each other up more if they’re made to wait.

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