Précis - There have been various recent developments relating to use of radio spectrum in the UK.  These include: the proposed auctioning of 200MHz of spectrum by the MOD; a review by Ofcom of the management of spectrum for fixed wireless point to point links; proposed new licensing exemptions for certain satellite terminals and updated guidance on the upcoming 4G auction.

What? The following summaries outline some of the most important regulatory announcements released by Ofcom in relation to spectrum and exemptions to the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 in December 2012:

Ministry of Defence intends to auction off 200MHz of spectrum in 2014

The Ministry of Defence ("MOD") has recently announced that it intends to auction off the usage rights to 200MHz of spectrum below 15GHz by 2014.  The MOD currently holds around three quarters of all publicly held spectrum and one third of all spectrum below 15GHz.  It is hoped that the auction of this spectrum will help drive the roll-out of next generation networks and provide universal access to broadband.

The sale of spectrum by the MOD will provide private operators with the opportunity to buy more spectrum to support the rollout of 4G mobile services or for the provision of wireless access to broadband services.  Spectrum analysts have predicted that the sale could raise between £400 million and £1bn for the Government.  The uses to which this additional spectrum may be put and the value to communications providers will not be known until the MOD confirms the frequency bands in which the spectrum will be made available.  It is however predicted that the value of the spectrum will be far lower than the value of the 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum which will be made available during the 4G auctions in 2013.

The sale follows an announcement made in the Government's 2010 Spending Review that at least 500MHz of public spectrum below 5GHz will be released for new mobile communication uses, including mobile broadband, by 2020.  Preparations for the MOD auction are intended to start at the end of 2013.

Ofcom's review of the management of fixed wireless point to point links

On 31 January 2012, Ofcom published a call for input relating to 37GHz of spectrum that is commonly used for fixed wireless point to point links in the radio frequency bands between 1.4GHz and 86GHz.  Today this spectrum is principally used for the provision of backhaul within mobile networks, accounting for 80% of the fixed link licence base.  Ofcom has now issued an update to its review.

Many respondents to Ofcom's call for input foresee that there will be increased demand within the mobile industry for fixed wireless links, especially in dense urban areas, for high capacity small cell backhaul to mobile base stations.  In particular, the frequencies above 60GHz were identified as being suitable for high capacity short range applications within mobile networks, with the 71-76GHz and 82-86GHz (the "E-band") frequency ranges being capable of being used for the provision of backhaul in 4G networks.

Changes to the way in which the E-band frequencies are licensed are of particular importance to respondents.  A number of mobile operators and their equipment suppliers reported that the current self co-ordinated management regime for these frequency bands did not provide them with the necessary levels of protection they require and that current practices could lead to extended dispute resolution discussions.  Certain respondents requested that Ofcom become more actively involved in the management of these bands.

Satellite stakeholders highlighted concerns that the growth in satellite broadband applications in the Ka band will place significant demands on current and future capacity.  To address this concern they have suggested to Ofcom that the spectrum currently shared in the 18GHz band should be made available to fixed satellite service applications for uncoordinated satellite terminals on a more favourable basis.  In addition, Satellite Stakeholders argued that the current regulatory approach to the 28GHz band had resulted in an unfavourable environment for satellite services to be provided.

At a more general level, respondents were in agreement that spectrum users (including end users and manufacturers) require a stable regulatory environment in which they can have a high degree of certainty about future access to spectrum. There was also little interest in the migration of spectrum from Ofcom's band management to a third party provider.  It was generally considered that the current mix of management approaches (12GHz managed by Ofcom, 6GHz managed by third parties and the remainder being subject to light licensing and licence exempt management regimes) was appropriate.  Respondents also identified a more general requirement for spectrum to support developments in smart grids, security and business communications.

Having reviewed the responses to the call for input, Ofcom has set out the following priorities for its review:

  • a review of the spectrum management arrangements in the E-band  - Ofcom intends to discuss options for changes to the current regime whilst reviewing the use of the 52GHz and 55GHz bands (which are currently subject to Ofcom management but remain unused) to determine whether they could be used for carrier grade applications;
  • identification of additional spectrum for mobile and wireless data traffic use - Ofcom recognises that there is international interest in potential candidate bands for next generation broadband mobile systems, including the 1.4GHz and 4GHz bands. Ofcom will continue to engage with the relevant groups with a view to developing a clear direction on the future use of this spectrum in the UK;  
  • a licence fee review - of the bands between 1.4GHz and 86GHz;
  • enhanced use of the 18GHz band for fixed satellite services - work is currently under way in CEPT on this area.  Depending on the arrangements that are developed Ofcom may conduct its own analysis taking into account longer term spectrum demands in the UK; and  
  • improved access to planning information - Ofcom is supportive in principle of stakeholders having access to parts of Ofcom's planning database to enable them to test network planning options and to monitor the future availability of spectrum in areas of interest.  Ofcom is to consider how to make such facilities available and whether to do so would be cost effective considering the potential system implementation costs involved with such an approach.

Ofcom is not seeking responses to this update but is interested in hearing from stakeholders if they have strong views on Ofcom's prioritisation of the policy issues set out above, or if they feel that there are any material omissions.

Ofcom comments on licence exemption of Wireless Telegraphy Devices

In July 2012, Ofcom published a consultation, Licence Exemption of Wireless Telegraphy Devices (the "Consultation").

The licence exemptions are important due to section 8(1) of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 (the "WTA"), which states that it is in an offence to establish, install or use equipment for wireless telegraphy without a licence.  The licence exemptions make it possible for everyday users of small wireless telegraphy devices (which are usually short range devices ("SRDs") controlled by a licenced network e.g. mobile phone) to carry out their daily activities without the need to obtain a licence.  Due to their low transmitting power and limited range, most of these everyday devices can operate on the same frequencies without causing interference to each other.

The criteria which a device must meet in order to become exempt from the licence requirement is set out in section 8(4) WTA.  The device will not require a licence if it:

  1. is not likely to involve undue interference with wireless telegraphy;
  2. is not likely to adversely affect technical quality of service;
  3. is not likely to lead to inefficient use of the part of the electromagnetic spectrum available for wireless telegraphy;
  4. does not endanger safety of life;
  5. does not prejudice the promotion of social, regional or territorial cohesion; and
  6. does not prejudice the promotion of cultural and linguistic diversity and media pluralism.

Ofcom has confirmed that it intends to proceed with its decision to allow the licence-free use of Mobile Satellite System user terminals on the 1518 to 1525 MHz, 1525 to 1559 MHz, 1626.5 to 1660.5 MHz and 1670 to 1675 MHz bands.  However, Ofcom has also confirmed that it will review this decision if it finds that the use of MSS devices on these frequency bands interferes with Radio Astronomy services.

Ofcom will also press ahead with its decision to close the 10.675 to 10.699 GHz frequency band to new SRDs on eighteen months' notice.  This decision has been taken in light of the fact that the band is intended to be a "quiet band", which is intended for Earth Exploration Satellite Services rather than devices such as house intruder alarms.  Since it is impossible to know how many devices are deployed on the relevant frequency band (because they are unlicensed), Ofcom will only be closing the frequency band to new devices.  It is understood that this solution will not immediately resolve the issue but the devices with long lifespans will not be able to be replaced once they have fallen out of service.   In response to a number of comments from stakeholders regarding the sufficiency of the alternative allocation for radio-determination applications in the 10.577 to 10.597 GHz band, Ofcom is prepared to extend the frequency to 10.575 to 10.599 GHz and are consulting on this proposal.

4G spectrum auction: Ofcom confirms bidders and issues guidance on bidding process

Ofcom has announced the bidders in the largest sale of mobile airwaves in the UK.  The spectrum auction, which is set to take place in January 2013, will consist of seven bidders.  Alongside the four major existing network operators (Everything Everywhere Limited, Hutchison 3G UK Limited, Telefonica UK Limited and Vodafone Limited), three hopeful entities have applied to partake in the auction:

  • MLL Telecom Ltd;
  • HKT (UK) Company Limited (a subsidiary of PCCW Limited); and
  • Niche Spectrum Ventures Limited (a subsidiary of BT Group plc).

The bids from these three potential entrants to the mobile market will help to maximise revenue from the auction of spectrum from the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands.  The spectrum will be packaged into smaller lots in order to enable multiple operators to acquire suitable spectrum. If their bids are successful, they will have the potential to provide 4G mobile broadband services across the UK.  Ofcom CEO, Ed Richards, confirmed that the 4G services will "stimulate investment, growth and innovation in the UK and deliver significant benefits to consumers in terms of better, faster and more reliable mobile broadband connections".

In addition, Ofcom has issued guidance to bidders in respect of the auction.  The guidance aims to give bidders of the 4G spectrum practical advice, which is not necessarily set out in the Wireless Telegraphy (Licence Award) Regulations 2012 (the "Regulations").  The guidance also sets out details of the timing and structure of the auction as well as the Electronic Auction System which will be used in January.

You can read the guidance paper here.