A person using a mobile phone as they walk through a train station

Rolling out millimetre wave spectrum – what you need to know

Published: 9 May 2022
Last updated: 16 March 2023

People could benefit from faster broadband and better quality mobile services, as Ofcom plans to make millimetre wave spectrum available for new uses.

You can’t see or feel radio spectrum. But devices that communicate wirelessly use it – 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.

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

In our approach to spectrum management, we want to make sure the spectrum is used efficiently, and to promote competition and innovation among providers, which in turn generates benefits for consumers.

We’re proposing to make millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum available so it can be used for 5G, mobile broadband and other new uses. This has the potential to unlock more capacity and faster speeds, which could enable people to benefit from faster broadband, better quality mobile services, and innovative new services.

Greater network capacity

One major benefit is that mmWave spectrum will give people better services when they’re in crowded areas. Sometimes in places where there are lots of people using their mobile phones at the same time, services can become slow, which is frustrating for mobile users. mmWave spectrum will help to overcome this by enabling significant increases in the network capacity (the amount of data mobile networks can carry).

This will be good news for people in bustling streets, commuters who use busy railway stations, or people visiting large sports or entertainment venues.

This spectrum can also be used to provide fixed wireless broadband services providing gigabit speeds, including in hard to reach areas. This will give people in different areas of the UK better choice in high speed broadband services.

Supporting a variety of wireless needs

Another benefit of mmWave spectrum is that it can support businesses with bespoke wireless needs. This spectrum can be used to deliver private networks across a wide range of sectors, which can enable things like factory automation in manufacturing, smart farming in agriculture, and secure campus-style networks on business premises.

While mmWave rollout around the world is in relatively early stages, it has already been deployed on a commercial scale in the US, and some mmWave spectrum has been made available in European countries including Germany, Italy and Finland, with more countries to follow in the next few years.

Because mmWave spectrum operates at higher frequencies, some people have raised concerns that it might have negative impacts on health.

In the UK, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) leads on health matters related to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, or radio waves. On 5G (which includes use of mmWave), UKHSA’s view is that ‘the overall exposure is expected to remain low relative to guidelines and, as such, there should be no consequences for public health’.

UKHSA’s main advice about radio waves from base stations is that the guidelines of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) should be adopted for limiting exposures. Any mmWave licences issued by Ofcom will contain a clause that requires compliance with these guidelines. More information on this topic is available on our website.

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