Précis - On 29 March 2012, Ofcom published a consultation on a long-term strategy for the future for UHF bands IV and V, and in particular the 700MHz band.  The consultation may determine what spectrum is available in the UK in the future for mobile data services and digital terrestrial television, among other things.

What? Ofcom is consulting on a long-term strategy for the use of UHF bands IV and V and, in particular, the 700MHz band. Although the 700MHz band is currently used for DTT and various other services, it is also suitable for mobile broadband. As demand for mobile broadband services is anticipated to increase by 80-300 times by 2030, Ofcom is keen to make the 700MHz spectrum available for this purpose.  However, the need for additional spectrum for mobile data services will need to be balanced against the need for spectrum to deliver digital terrestrial television ("DTT"), which performs an important public policy role in delivering universal low-cost access to public service broadcasting content, and other services that currently make use of the 700MHz spectrum.

So what? UHF bands IV and V are currently heavily used by a wide range of services including DTT, mobile broadband, applications using white space devices, programme-making and special events, emergency services and local television.

The 700MHz band is already being used in the US for Long Term Evolution (LTE) services and similar plans are underway in Australia, New Zealand and in parts of Asia. In Europe, Africa and the Middle East, a resolution was passed at the 2012 World Radio Conference paving the way for a decision to enable the 700MHz band to be used for mobile broadband after the next World Radio Conference in 2015.

Ofcom stated that "The 700MHz band...represents the most attractive option for providing additional lower frequency spectrum. This is because there is now global momentum behind it being harmonised for mobile broadband".

Provided that the decision is reached in 2015 and dependent on there being no strong objections to Ofcom's proposals, the necessary international agreement for the 700MHz band to be used for mobile broadband could be in place by 2018. Ofcom believes that by that stage technological improvements may mean that DTT will need less of the 700MHz band and could even make use of the 600MHz band.

According to the consultation, Ofcom also thinks that by 2030 the DTT platform could be replaced by internet protocol television services, but this will be some time after the 700MHz band could be released for mobile broadband.

Ofcom hopes that mobile broadband will be able to make use of the 700MHz band earlier than 2030 because of future improvements in digital television compression and transmission technology that will make DTT use of spectrum more efficient, as well as by moving DTT services to the 600MHz band which is being released by digital switchover.

Ofcom requests responses to its consultation by 7 June 2012.

There is little doubt that aligning the UK's use of the 700 MHz spectrum with a significant number of other countries could create significant benefits for consumers and create more economies of scale for manufacturers of terminals that can be used for mobile broadband in the 700 MHz frequency range.

The difficulties associated with having different spectrum allocations for mobile data services in different countries is well demonstrated by the criticism Apple has received in relation to its marketing of the new iPad's 4G capabilities in the UK and a number of other countries.  That device is designed for 4G data services on networks in the US and Canada that operate on the 700MHz frequency band.  As outlined above, it is not currently anticipated that 4G networks will be rolled out in the UK using that frequency unless and until it is made available by Ofcom pursuant to the current consultation.

In spite of these apparent benefits, a significant part of Ofcom's proposal depends on:

  • a suitable solution for the release of 600 MHz spectrum to a number of different stakeholders who either currently make use of the 700 MHz band or need access to low frequency spectrum for new applications (like white space devices); and
  • the success of IPTV services as a substitute and potential replacement of digital terrestrial television in the long term.

Both of those outcomes remain uncertain, and Ofcom and the other relevant stakeholders will have a lot of work to do to achieve a satisfactory outcome.