Looking Beyond 4G: U.K. Telecoms Regulator Prepping Spectrum Release Plan for 5G, Sees “Untapped Opportunity” For Wi-Fi Hotspots

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The U.K.’s first 4G network has only just got up and running, but telecoms regulator Ofcom is already looking beyond 4G to form a plan for the next generation of mobile network technology — potentially 5G — looking at where the spectrum will come from to support future mobile network capacity needs.

Ofcom has also published new data showing 20 million Gigabytes of data is now being consumed per month over the U.K.’s mobile networks – more than twice the monthly consumption rate last year (9 million Gigabytes). Ofcom reckons that by 2030, demand for mobile data could be 80 times higher than today.

“Within the coming months we will hold the UK’s largest-ever auction of mobile spectrum for 4G. However, that may not be enough to meet consumers’ future data demands, which is why we are already making significant efforts to prepare to go beyond 4G,” said Ed Richards, Ofcom Chief Executive, in a statement.

“Our plans are designed to avoid a ‘capacity crunch’, ensuring that the UK’s mobile infrastructure can continue to support the inescapable growth in consumer demand and economic growth more generally.”

The plan for future mobile networks is to utilize the 700MHz band, a band currently used for digital terrestrial television. Ofcom believes spectrum can be drawn from this band to support ‘5G’ services without requiring another mass TV switchover, as has been the case with 4G. The release of spectrum to run 4G services in the U.K. has been delayed by the need to wait for TV services to vacate the intended frequencies. Ofcom is clearly keen to avoid a repeat of such delays.

In the 5G over 700MHz scenario, Ofcom notes that although alternative frequencies will need to be provided for digital terrestrial TV (likely in the 600MHz band), in most cases it says this will only require a retune of existing TV equipment, rather than the replacement of roof-top aerials (although it says a minority of consumers will need to switch aerials). Ofcom does not believe any retuning will be necessary before 2018, and anticipates the next generation of mobile tech will be introduced towards the end of the decade.

Using the 700MHz band is in line with international plans to harmonize future mobile networks in different countries on the same spectrum frequencies in order to create economies of scale and ensure a wide availability of handsets. Ofcom notes that work to agree on an international spectrum plan for future mobile services is also unlikely to be completed before 2018.

The variety of bands being used for 4G services is less than ideal — bringing added complexity for consumers, as well as potential barriers to switching between networks as 4G handsets aren’t necessarily compatible with other 4G networks. Harmonizing the frequencies used for the next generation of mobile technology would provide a more level playing field for consumers.

Ofcom is also looking at the role played by Wi-Fi in offloading data from mobile networks — noting that future Internet bandwidth will need to come from a variety of sources, including public Wi-Fi hotspots. For the first time it has mapped the distribution of U.K. hotspots, and lists a total of 16,000.

Ofcom sees an “untapped opportunity” around Wi-Fi hotspots — noting that around 25 times more data is currently downloaded over mobile networks than Wi-Fi hotspots, indicating that Wi-Fi could play a crucial role in meeting future data demands and avoiding a mobile network capacity crunch.