We are fortunate in the UK to have a telecoms and media regulator whose policies are at the forefront of international best practice. In relation to spectrum policy – the main topic of this blog – Ofcom’s spectrum management reforms over the past decade have resulted in spectrum assignment practices in the UK that are market-driven and flexible (within the bounds of international regulations).
The government’s Digital Economy Bill – on its way to becoming law after a third reading in November 2016 – puts forward further innovations such as dynamic spectrum access, requiring Ofcom to introduce this new practice. Society’s need for greater access to broadband connectivity, including wireless, is a key motivator for the new law. The continuing growth in demand for wireless data services means that the UK’s 3G and 4G mobile networks are becoming increasingly congested. New emerging applications – especially in relation to the Internet of Things – are reliant on mobile connectivity being available continuously. Achieving greater capacity, better reliability and increasing reach of coverage will require mobile networks to transform, with the deployment of many more smaller cells, and massive MIMO antenna technology.
These transformations are embraced within the next generation of mobile connectivity, known as 5G. The government is putting weight behind policies to promote 5G deployment in the UK – as evident in recent budget announcements and in DCMS’s 5G Strategy. Governments in European markets are also keenly interested in 5G, and European institutions such as the European Commission and the RSPG are working closely to harmonise European spectrum availability for 5G.
The consequences of the ‘Brexit’ vote in this regard have yet to become clear but indications from Ofcom are that the frequency bands that will be made available for 5G in the UK will be aligned with emerging European policy.
Ofcom has already set out indications about the wide range of bands that might be included in the overall 4G–5G transition (we provide a summary of Ofcom’s indications in Figure 1 below).
Key over the coming year will be to develop further detail of how new bands will be released to market, including the licensing terms of different bands, and how these relate to roll-out and coverage obligations.
At least for the provision of mobile broadband services, 5G might follow the same coverage patterns as 4G, subject to suitable spectrum being available. However, if 5G is to deliver connectivity to transform the way that many local, utility and public services are delivered as well as connecting railway corridors and roads, enhanced coverage will be needed, including within buildings and to locations where mobile reception has traditionally been weak. How different 5G bands might be brought to market in the UK is a topic that the UK Spectrum Policy Forum will be considering during 2017.
Janette Stewart is a Principal with Analysys Mason and chairs the SPF workstream on spectrum future uses and demand. This guest blog is part for techUK's "Good to Great Connectivity for the UK" Week.