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The UK 4G spectrum auction and mobile coverage

Published Monday, July 20, 2015

Ofcom auctioned radio spectrum needed for 4G mobile devices in 2013, raising £2.34 billion (less than Treasury forecasts). This briefing summarises the details of the auction, potential interference with digital television and future plans for the 700 MHz lot of spectrum.

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Fourth generation (4G) mobile services

Like 2G and 3G networks used by mobile phones and other devices, 4G (fourth generation) networks rely on the transmission of radio waves. Compared to 3G, 4G services are much quicker; in 2014, Ofcom reported that the average download speed for 4G mobile services was 15.1 Mbps compared with 6.1 Mbps for 3G services.

Auctioning radio spectrum

Different services operate at different frequencies to avoid interference. Ofcom is responsible for allocating the frequencies from what is referred to as the radio spectrum to different mobile network operators.  The allocation of spectrum is managed by means of licences, effectively licences to transmit radio waves over defined frequency ranges.

4G spectrum auction: 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum

In early 2013, Ofcom auctioned radio spectrum licences in the 800 MHz (megahertz) and 2.6 GHz (gigahertz) frequency bands to provide spectrum for new mobile services in the UK. One of the 800 MHz lots of spectrum carries a coverage obligation to provide a mobile broadband service for indoor reception to at least 98% of the UK population by the end of 2017. The auction raised £2.34bn, less than the £3.5bn forecast by the Chancellor in the preceding Autumn Statement.

EE rolls out 4G ahead of its competitors: 1800 MHz spectrum

In August 2012, Ofcom announced that EE would be allowed to use its existing 1800 MHz spectrum to roll out 4G services, ahead of its competitors. Ofcom considered that any competitive advantage EE would benefit from as a result would be short-lived and would not be to the detriment of consumers.

Interference with digital terrestrial television

Some households are likely to experience interference in their television reception due to the introduction of 4G mobile devices. To ameliorate this issue, the Government announced that it would provide a filter to allow reception of digital terrestrial television following the adoption of 4G mobile technology free of charge to be met from the £180 million funding to be provided by the mobile network operators.

Future plans for 700 MHz spectrum: mobile data

Following Ofcom’s May 2014 consultation, it decided that the 700MHz spectrum band should be made available for mobile data use (November 2014). The March 2015 Budget confirmed that the Coalition Government would allocate up to £600 million to support the delivery of the change of use of 700MHz spectrum. And in March 2015, the Coalition Government stated that there would be an auction of the 700 MHz spectrum in the next parliament (2015-20).

Commons Briefing papers SN06383

Author: David Hirst

Topics: Broadcasting, Telecommunications

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