Out-Law News 2 min. read

5G spectrum auction an enabler for digital transformation

Widespread 5G connectivity across the UK will support the digitisation of healthcare, underpin the evolution of smart cities and enable businesses across sectors to enhance the customer experience using technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, experts in technology law have said.

Simon Colvin and Nick Hutton of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, were commenting after the principal stage for bidding closed in the latest 5G spectrum auction to be held in the UK. The auction was originally scheduled to take place last year but factors including the coronavirus crisis caused its postponement until now.

Under a process overseen by Ofcom, the four largest mobile network operators (MNOs) in the UK – EE, Three, O2 and Vodafone – bid for the right to use 34 blocks of spectrum within two separate radio frequency bands. In total, 200 MHz of spectrum is being auctioned off in lots across the 700 MHz band and the 3.6-3.8 GHz band.

Ofcom has reported that each of the four MNOs have successfully bid for some of the spectrum available during the principal stage of the auction. EE has acquired the most spectrum of the four, including half of the available spectrum in the 700 MHz ban and a third of the available spectrum in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band. In total, the four MNOs paid more than £1.35 billion to acquire rights to use the frequency being auctioned off. A further stage of bidding will now determine what blocks of the spectrum will be assigned to each MNO.

Ofcom has said that the auction will "increase the total amount of spectrum available for mobile technology in the UK by nearly a fifth". Hutton said the frequency being auctioned off in both bands can support more widespread deployment of 5G networks in the UK.

Telecoms and 5G expert Hutton said that the 80 MHz being made available in the 700 MHz band would help MNOs expand their networks into rural communities, as the airwaves in that band lend themselves to connectivity over longer distances. The 3.6-3.8 GHz band will support faster connection speeds over shorter distances and will be capable of supporting the data-heavy use of mobile broadband by large numbers of consumers in urban areas, Hutton said.

Hutton said: "5G technologies will deliver more than merely a faster version of existing 4G connectivity. The ultra low latency, faster speeds and very high capacity of 5G are expected to power a step change in mobile apps and services. For consumers, this will include virtual reality and augmented reality experiences such as immersive live music and sporting events. It is also expected to boost mobile gaming, with games streamed to handsets and seamless online play between users. 5G may even end up replacing fixed line fibre for our home broadband services."

Colvin, who specialises in technology and telecoms contracts at Pinsent Masons, said: "For businesses, 5G will enable them to explore new processes and more efficient ways of operating. This could mean, for example, a machine operator driving industrial machinery remotely in inhospitable locations, or a paramedic communicating with a consultant via high quality video link from the scene of an accident. Ultimately, 5G is likely to drive the development of smart cities, powering changes in our urban environments by adding connectivity to everyday features like traffic lights, bus stops, parking spaces and more."

"The 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme, which Pinsent Masons has advised the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on since 2017, points to a myriad of further use cases for 5G emerging. The starting point for anticipated innovation is in the building of 5G networks, and this is why the release of this spectrum is so significant," he said.

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