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Ofcom allocates 700MHz band for mobile data services

The 700MHz radio frequency band will be made exclusively available to mobile data service providers by 2022 at the latest, Ofcom has confirmed.

The move will require some digital terrestrial television (DTT) services to be shifted onto other frequencies, the telecommunications regulator said. Similarly, wireless microphones used in programme making and special events (PMSE), such as theatre and musical productions and at sporting events may also need to operate on alternative airwaves.

Ofcom said it needs to allocate radio spectrum for mobile data services to address a potential capacity shortage (84-page / 657KB PDF) as consumers increasingly turn to their mobile devices to access internet services.

"Consumers use mobile data services for a range of business and leisure activities, from working remotely to watching films and using social media on tablets or smartphones," Ofcom said. "Consumer demand for mobile data is growing rapidly. We expect it to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. Mobile network operators (MNOs) will be able to meet some of this increase in demand by deploying more base stations and using more efficient technology on their networks. However, if they are to meet the increase in demand efficiently they will also need access to more spectrum."

The UK economy stands to benefit by approximately £1 billion as a result of the plans, Ofcom claimed.

"Access to the 700 MHz band will enable MNOs to meet increases in demand for mobile data at a lower cost than would otherwise have been the case," it said. "It will also enable them to improve mobile data speeds indoors and in rural areas more cheaply than they otherwise would have. We expect competition in the market to result in a significant proportion of these benefits being passed on to consumers through lower prices and better quality mobile data services. We estimate the value of these benefits to be between £900m-1.3bn."

Other benefits such as improved mobile coverage in the UK may also be realised by making the 700MHz band mobile data-only, it said.

The cost of making the changes is likely to be between £550-660m, Ofcom said. The estimate accounts for the costs entailed in the necessary "extensive programme of modifications to DTT transmission infrastructure", the cost of replacing TV aerials or fitting filters to TVs in some areas to address potential signal interference, and the cost of replacing some wireless microphone equipment which can "operate in different frequencies", among other things, Ofcom said.

"In the light of our cost benefit analysis, we consider that change of use of the 700MHz band is in the best interests of UK citizens and consumers and we have therefore decided to go ahead with the change," Ofcom said. "We will give effect to this decision in due course by varying the multiplex operators’ licences and issuing notice for PMSE users to clear the band."

However, Ofcom admitted that there remains a question over who will pay for the changes. Broadcasters and PMSE users said they should be "compensated for any costs imposed on them by the change", it said. Ofcom said, though, that "any decisions on public funding are a matter for the government".

The regulator said that it expects to auction off access to the 700MHz band to MNOs at some point in the future.

It said it expects other European countries will also make the 700MHz available for mobile data services too. In a report for the European Commission earlier this year, former EU commissioner Pascal Lamy said the 700MHz band should be entirely dedicated to supporting wireless broadband services by approximately 2020.

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