Releasing airwaves for mobile services next year

28 October 2019

Ofcom has announced updated plans to release crucial airwaves to meet growing demand for 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 phone services and help more people and businesses to access 5G networks, we are planning to release more mobile airwaves through an auction in spring 2020.

Improving mobile coverage

In December we proposed rules that would require mobile companies to increase coverage in rural areas, in exchange for winning discounted spectrum through the auction.

Following this, mobile operators BT/EE, O2, Three and Vodafone discussed an alternative ‘shared rural network’ plan. This was aimed at delivering good quality 4G coverage to at least 92% of the UK over the next six years.

The Government has now announced that the companies have committed to reaching this target. The Government has also confirmed it will provide £500 million of funding for the plan.

We welcome this agreement, which will provide major benefits to mobile phone users across the UK.

To make sure mobile companies stick to the commitments, we will write conditions into their spectrum licences. We will also monitor, and report, on their progress in meeting the new commitments.

In light of the commitments, we are no longer proposing to include coverage obligations in our auction. This is because the companies’ new agreement will achieve higher coverage than the requirements we could have set through an auction. So, we have today published updated proposals for how our mobile auction will work.

Supporting competition

Ofcom has a duty to ensure spectrum is used efficiently. We also ensure companies can compete fairly and customers have a good choice of mobile networks. So, to promote competition, we are still proposing a 37% cap on the overall spectrum that any one mobile company can hold following the auction. Promoting strong competition between mobile companies is important because it leads to better services for customers.

We’re pressing ahead with plans to release vital airwaves to improve mobile services for customers. Together with mobile companies’ commitments to improve coverage, this will help more areas get better services and help the UK maintain its place as a leader in 5G. Philip Marnick, Spectrum Group Director at Ofcom

What is spectrum?

Spectrum is the invisible infrastructure that supports all devices needing to communicate without wires – 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.

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.

The airwaves we’re making available are often referred to as ‘millimetre wave’ spectrum. They involve radio waves operating at extremely high frequencies. Frequencies in this spectrum range are currently used for a number of different services, including helping to provide wireless internet services.

What difference is 5G expected to make?

infographic about what difference will 5G make?