Ofcom finalises rules for mobile airwaves auction

13 March 2020

Ofcom has today confirmed how we will release important airwaves to help improve mobile broadband and support the rollout of 5G.

Ofcom manages the UK’s airwaves – or spectrum – a finite resource that is essential for wireless services including mobile phones.

To help improve mobile services and give more people access to 5G networks, we will release more mobile airwaves through an auction.

The airwaves companies will bid for

The auction will involve companies bidding for spectrum in two different frequency bands.

  • The 700 MHz band. These airwaves are ideal for providing good mobile coverage, both indoors and across very wide areas, including the countryside. Releasing these airwaves will also boost the capacity of existing mobile networks, offering customers a more reliable service.
  • The 3.6-3.8 GHz band. These airwaves are used for 5G and can carry lots of data-hungry connections in concentrated areas.

How the auction will work

Similar to our 2018 spectrum auction, this year’s auction will involve two stages. It will work like this:

  • Principal stage. Companies first bid for airwaves in separate ‘lots’ to determine how much spectrum each company wins.
  • Assignment stage. There is then a round of bidding to determine the specific frequencies that winning bidders will be allocated.

Supporting competition in the mobile market

As well as making sure spectrum is used efficiently, we also make sure companies can compete fairly and that customers have a good choice of mobile networks. To help maintain competition in the mobile market, we will impose a 37% cap on the overall spectrum that any one mobile company can hold following the auction.

Improving mobile coverage

On 9 March, the Government announced it had reached agreement with the four mobile network operators – BT/EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – to set up a shared rural network to improve mobile coverage across the UK. This involves each company committing to deliver good-quality 4G coverage to at least 90% of the UK over six years.

By mobile companies working together, supported by Government funding, the agreement will achieve higher coverage than Ofcom could have required under our powers, and so we will not include coverage obligations in our auction.

Demand for getting online, on the move is soaring, with mobile customers using nearly 40% more data year on year. So, releasing these airwaves will bring a much-needed capacity boost – helping mobile customers get a better service.

We’re also releasing more airwaves to help cement the UK’s place as a world leader in 5G.

Philip Marnick, Spectrum Group Director at Ofcom

What is spectrum?

You can’t see or feel radio spectrum. But any device that communicates wirelessly needs spectrum – such as televisions, car key fobs, baby monitors, wireless microphones and satellites. Mobile phones use spectrum to connect to a local mast so people can make calls and access the internet.

Why does Ofcom manage spectrum use?

Only a limited amount of spectrum is available, so it needs to be managed carefully. Certain bands of spectrum are also used for different purposes. For example, mobile companies use different parts of the spectrum to TV companies. So, it needs to be managed to prevent services interfering and causing disruption to people and businesses.