Cellular Networks and Technology

12 June 2015

1G The first cellular networks which used analogue (1G) technology in the 900 MHz band started operating in the mid-1980s and closed in June 2001 after the networks and customers had moved to using GSM (2G) technology.

2G GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) provided improved quality and flexibility over the first generation analogue mobile phone services and standardised the technology needed to allow mobile phones to make and receive calls when the user is travelling abroad.  GSM systems are commonly referred to as second generation or 2G and have evolved to offer many advanced technical features that are used to support a wide portfolio of services including international roaming, Short Message Service texting, web-browsing and picture messaging.

Wireless Telegraphy Act licences for 2G cellular services were allocated through public consultation processes in the 1980s and 1990s for an indefinite duration, subject to annual fee payments.  There are three licensees currently operating 2G networks: Telefónica UK (O2) and Vodafone operating in the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands, EE (formerly T-Mobile and Orange) operating in the 1800 MHz band.

3G      UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service) was the Third Generation (3G) of mobile communications, providing mobile users with interactive multimedia capabilities at higher data rates than for 2G.  Improvements in coding and data compression technology provided better speech quality and faster data transmission.

Licences for 3G services on the UK mainland were awarded by an auction process in April 2000, for a fixed period until 31 December 2021.  Following a Government Direction to Ofcom and subsequent consultation in 2011, the licences now continue indefinitely and will be subject to annual fee payments after 2021.  There are four UK operators: Telefónica UK (O2), EE (formerly T-Mobile and Orange), Vodafone and 3 (Hutchison 3G UK Limited), operating in the 1900 MHz and 2100 MHz bands.

4G 4G is the next generation of superfast broadband.  There are a number of candidate technologies including mobile WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) and LTE (Long Term Evolution – based on development of GSM (2G) and UMTS (3G) technology).   In January 2013 Ofcom held an award for the use the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum for 4G mobile broadband services and licences were issued on 1st March 2013.  4G services are also deployed in the 3.4 – 3.8 GHz spectrum bands.

Spectrum Liberalisation Ofcom published a Notice on 28 October 2010 proposing to vary the existing 900 MHz and 1800 MHz 2G licences to allow also UMTS (3G) use.  The Secretary of State made a Government Direction to Ofcom on 20 December 2010 that came into force on 30 December 2010.  Concluding the consultation process, Ofcom varied the licences on 6 January 2011.

Ofcom published further notices on 2 February 2011 proposing to make licences in the 900, 1800 and 2100 spectrum bands tradable and proposing changes to existing 3G mobile licences to implement aspects of the Government’s mobile spectrum Directions to Ofcom.  Statements confirming Ofcom’s decision to proceed with these proposals were published on 20 June 2011.

The licences for the former 2G and 3G spectrum bands (except the 3G TDD band 1900-1920 MHz, which remains 3G only) were further liberalised following the 4G award so that any of the spectrum may be used for providing UMTS or LTE (3G or 4G) services, giving operators the freedom to manage deployments and change technology at any convenient time without further regulatory approval or potential delay to that process.

Licence Classes

Spectrum Access” is a generic title for licences, usually further defined by the frequency band of use and possibly other criteria.  (e.g. “Spectrum Access 2.6 GHz” is the title for a cellular licence in the band 2500-2690 MHz).

Public Wireless Network” was the title given to GSM/2G licences which, now liberalised, are effectively Spectrum Access licences (at 900 and 1800 MHz).  However the original title is used in a number of publications and is retained, for now, for ease of reference.

Licence Exempt Apparatus

Compliant terminal apparatus (e.g. Handsets, terminals, cellphones/smartphones) that connects to a licensed network may be exempted from the requirement for a licence, where used in accordance with the relevant exemption regulations.

Licence exemption does not cover the use of repeater / enhancer apparatus; for further information see: Repeaters / Boosters / Enhancers.

Industry Groups

In March 2016, it was announced that a new organisation Mobile UK has been formed to represent the mobile network operators in the UK.

Mobile UK carries on the work of two former groups, whose legacy websites remain available at present (May 2016) for reference:

  • the Mobile Broadband Group (collectively the UK mobile network operators) which worked with consumers, Government, and Regulators across a range of regulatory and policy issues; and
  • the Mobile Operators Association which represented the network operators on radio frequency (RF) health and safety and related town planning issues associated with the use of mobile phone technology.

Reference Information

May 2016