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Ofcom identifies difficulties in finding spectrum to meet wireless data demands

Ofcom has asked the UK's telecoms industry to help it identify existing frequency bands within which tests on spectrum sharing could be conducted after admitting to having concerns about whether the amount of available spectrum can meet consumer demand for wireless data services.

The regulator is looking to give researchers "short-term access" to spectrum in order to help with the development of spectrum sharing schemes as part of its effort to find the capacity in the UK's airwaves to meet the growing use of mobile broadband and Wi-Fi networks.

"Many spectrum sharing developments remain in a research development phase and it may take several years to identify and harmonise at an international level the potential frequency bands needed to support their widespread use," Ofcom said in a new consultation it has launched on spectrum sharing. (51-page / 542KB PDF) "In the interim period, making spectrum available on a short-term non-operational basis to support research and development (R&D) activity could be beneficial for supporting innovation in new wireless technologies."

"Information on the spectrum bands of most value to innovators would allow us to focus measures to improve access to spectrum for them. In such bands we could explore how co-existence and sharing arrangements could be developed to support easier access, perhaps through a geolocation based solution but also through potential enhancements to our existing arrangements," it said.

As well as helping to facilitate short-term access to spectrum for the purposes of research, Ofcom has also consulted on ways of helping to increase the supply of spectrum available and in better managing its use. Among the initiatives being looked at are ways in which to exploit gaps in the use of spectrum by existing services on a geographic basis and the extent to which "dynamic spectrum access" technologies can be utilised.

"Cognitive sensing techniques can allow devices to monitor how other devices are accessing spectrum, giving devices the ability to make better informed choices over which frequency and/or time slot to use at given location at a particular time of day," Ofcom said. "Both approaches seek to minimise the risk of harmful interference with other devices. In this way a better quality of service can be potentially maintained for all of the devices sharing access."

The regulator also identified potential ways to increase the supply of spectrum that could be used to deliver data over Wi-Fi networks. One of the schemes Ofcom said could help increase Wi-Fi capacity was if "improved radio access technologies" were used to help reduce interference.

"The adoption of smart antennas and beam forming, in which transmissions are steered directly between communicating devices, could lead to better spectrum efficiency, improved signal quality and reduced contention," Ofcom said. "However, whilst these approaches are likely to provide benefits where a Wi-Fi network can be centrally controlled it is unlikely to reduce the risk of interference and reduced performance for uncoordinated outdoor Wi-Fi access points."

Ofcom described existing spectrum as being a "scarce and valuable resource" due to a combination of factors, including the growing use of mobile devices to access the internet and Wi-Fi networks to connect people to the internet via fixed line broadband networks.

"Increasing the capacity and performance of wireless networks, including mobile broadband, is likely to deliver significant benefits to consumers in the form of new and improved services, while also ensuring that the UK’s communications infrastructure is capable of supporting future growth and innovation in the wider economy," the regulator said in its report.

Ofcom's consultation is open until 9 November.

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