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Ofcom prepares for 4G mobile auction

Someone using a smartphone.Ofcom has today announced plans for the largest ever single auction of additional spectrum for mobile services in the UK.

It is equivalent to three quarters of the mobile spectrum in use today and 80% more than the 3G auction which took place in 2000.

This spectrum is essential to meet the UK’s rapid increase in mobile traffic, fuelled by the growth of smartphones and mobile broadband data services such as video streaming, email, messenger services, mapping services and social networking sites.

Mobile broadband

All of these services depend on spectrum – the airwaves that carry information between customers’ mobile handsets and the internet.

The new spectrum will provide much needed capacity for the fourth generation (4G) of mobile technology.

One minute guide to spectrum

Why is it so important?

Spectrum is the airwaves on which all wireless communications rely – everything from TV and radio to mobile phones and sat navs use it. Spectrum has become essential to modern economies but it is also limited in supply, which makes it highly sought after.

Is spectrum all the same?

Lower frequencies travel much further than higher frequencies but cannot carry as much information. The frequencies in greatest demand are between 300 MHz and 3 GHz. It is considered to be prime spectrum, or the ‘sweetspot’, because it is suitable for a variety of applications.

What is happening now?

Ofcom manages radio spectrum in the UK and we’re now preparing to auction two significant spectrum bands – 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz. It is equivalent to three quarters of the mobile spectrum that is in use today

What is so good about these bands?

Both lie within the ‘sweetspot’ and are internationally harmonised for next generation mobile broadband use. The combination of low and high frequency spectrum creates the potential for mobile companies to roll out the fourth generation (4G) of mobile services across the UK with good capacity as well as good coverage.

What can we expect from 4G?

4G services should make it much quicker to surf the web on your mobile – speeds will be nearer to what you currently experience with home broadband. Because of this, 4G is ideally suited for wide bandwidth data services such as video streaming, email, messenger services, GPS and mapping services and social networking sites.

When will we see 4G networks in the UK?

We expect mobile operators to start rolling-out 4G networks from the start of 2013, and to start offering 4G services to consumers perhaps later that year. We would expect 4G services to be widely available across the UK a few years thereafter.

Why hold an auction?

Auctions are a fast, transparent, fair and economically efficient way of allocating spectrum. The first in the UK took place in 2000 when the frequencies currently used for 3G mobile services were auctioned.

This technology is set to deliver significantly faster mobile broadband services – approaching today’s ADSL home broadband speeds.

Data services

Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards, said: ‘The auction is not only critical to the future of the UK mobile telecommunications market but it is also of significant importance to the wider economy.

‘It will support a wide range of data services that are fast becoming essential features of the modern world.

‘Our role as the independent regulator is to award this spectrum in a way that secures the best use of the spectrum for the benefit of citizens and consumers in the UK.

‘That is why we are proposing to design the auction in a way that not only encourages investment but also promotes competition and delivers wide coverage of services.’

Promoting competition and coverage

Under measures being proposed by Ofcom, the auction will include a combination of safeguards and coverage conditions to promote competition and significantly widen the coverage of mobile broadband to 95% of the UK population.

The auction will be for two spectrum bands – 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz.

The lower frequency 800 MHz band is part of the digital dividend, which is being freed-up as the UK switches from analogue to digital TV. This spectrum is ideal for widespread mobile coverage.

The 2.6 GHz band is at a higher frequency, and is ideal for delivering the capacity needed to deliver higher speeds. These two bands add up to 250 MHz of additional mobile spectrum.

The combination of low and high frequency spectrum available in the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands creates the potential for next generation mobile broadband services to be widely available across the UK, while at the same time having the capacity to cope with significant demand, even in urban centres.

Ofcom wants the benefits of 4G services to be available as soon as possible and we are therefore aiming to start the auction in the first quarter of 2012, subject to this consultation.

Read the consultation

Illustration of the evolution of mobile technology

sweetspot illustration

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