From 3G To 4G: U.K. Telecoms Regulator Consults On Liberalising All Spectrum Licences In 900 MHz, 1,800 MHz, 2,100 MHz Bands

The fallout from Ofcom’s March 2012 decision to allow the company now known as EE to refarm existing 2G spectrum to build a 4G network continues. That decision paved the way for the launch of the U.K.’s first 4G network, 4GEE, up and running at the end of October 2012. Now EE’s rivals, Vodafone and Three, have asked the U.K. telecoms regulator to liberalise their existing spectrum holdings to allow them to run 4G services too.

Ofcom has gone further — and is proposing to liberalise all mobile licences in the 900 MHz, 1,800 MHz and 2,100 MHz bands for 4G — kicking off a consultation today. Here’s what it’s proposing:

to liberalise all mobile licences in the 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2100 MHz bands to permit the deployment of 4G services (where such licenses have not already been liberalised). This will align the permitted technologies across all mobile spectrum licences, including the existing licences at 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2100 MHz and the licences to be awarded by auction in the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands. This will meet a long standing objective to liberalise all mobile licences so that there are no regulatory barriers to the deployment of the latest available mobile technology;

The consultation document includes a table detailing the current breakdown of U.K. spectrum holdings — which shows that only EE and Three (H3G) currently have liberalised spectrum (in the 1,800Mhz band), and also underlines how EE, the joint network entity formed by the merger of Orange and T-Mobile, was able to use existing spectrum holdings for 4G because it held such a large tranche of spectrum (2 x 45MHz). Other carriers aren’t so well furnished:

uk spectrum holdings

All the U.K.’s major carriers are currently bidding to acquire new spectrumin the 800MHz and 2.6 GHz bands — which would enable EE’s rivals to launch their own 4G networks by late spring/summer. Despite Ofcom’s proposal to liberalise more existing spectrum licences for 4G use, it’s unlikely that EE’s rivals would be able to launch new 4G networks in their existing spectrum for a variety of reasons.

For one, Ofcom’s consultation on the liberalisation runs until March 29, after which the regulator would need time to consider the responses it has received before making and implementing its decision. Additionally, carriers would need to ensure they have cleared existing users of the liberalised spectrum before being able to deploy 4G services. Whereas the spectrum bands going under Ofcom’s hammer at present are being prepared for an imminent 4G launch — talks between the carriers, Ofcom and TV broadcasters last fall resulted in a speeding up of the clearance schedule for the 800MHz band, for instance.

Assuming Ofcom does go ahead with the proposed liberalisation, Matthew Howett, telecoms regulation analyst at Ovum, reckons it could be years before these existing spectrum holdings could be put to use for 4G.

“Despite operators being able to deploy 4G services in these bands previously restricted to 2G and 3G technologies, most are unlikely to do so in the short term,” he said in a statement reacting to Ofcom’s consultation. “They would first need to be cleared of their existing use through a process of refarming that would probably takes years rather than months, and so the spectrum that is currently being auctioned by Ofcom will most likely be used for Vodafone, O2 and Three’s initial deployment of 4G services.”

Howett added that Ofcom is moving away from a “command and control” approach to spectrum policy towards a “market-based management mechanism that lets the users of radio spectrum decide its real economic value and the best way to use it”. So, while the near-term impact on U.K. carriers’ 4G deployment plans might not be that great — the longer term move to free up spectrum licences to support speedier deployment of future technologies could have a much more significant impact.

“As mobile technologies advance and demand for mobile data traffic increases, regulators have acted to liberalize certain spectrum bands from previous technological restrictions,” Howett added. “Many regulators have updated the conditions of the licenses to accommodate the principle of technological neutrality, which removes restrictions on spectrum use and allows operators to deploy other technologies in these bands. This is a positive move.”

Discussing the medium term consumer benefits of liberalising spectrum licences for 4G, Ofcom’s consultation document refers to the increased “flexibility” it will offer carriers to decide which technology to deploy in which band, and ultimately, therefore, to better tailor services to customers’ preferences:

In the medium term, liberalisation may give operators greater flexibility to decide which technology to deploy in which bands. This may allow them to supply services that better meet their customers’ preferences.

… we recognise that operators may not immediately deploy 4G services in the newly liberalised bands. If so, then the consumer benefits associated with liberalisation would not occur immediately. However, it is likely that the operators will take advantage of the increased flexibility, and that consumer benefits will flow from this, in due course.