The regulator has published a mobile data strategy (114-page / 1.12MB PDF) in which it has set out a number of plans to increase the capacity of mobile network infrastructure so as to serve the growing use of mobile devices for accessing the internet and downloading data.
Ofcom has said it will investigate whether a number of different frequency bands currently used for providing different communication services could be relied upon for transmitting data over mobile networks.
"There are four bands where we think the potential benefits are high and there may be relatively clear - although still far from straightforward - path to create the option for mobile data or wireless broadband use – 1452-1492 MHz, 1980-2010/2170-2200 MHz, 3.6-3.8 GHz and 5 GHz (5350–5470 MHz; 5725–5925 MHz)," Ofcom said in its strategy paper.
"Beyond this there are two bands, 2.7–2.9 GHz and 3.8- –4.2 GHz, which could offer material benefits, and where UK costs or constraints might not be exceptionally high, but where the current international position is a significant constraint on realising that potential value for the UK. In addition, although the constraints for the sub-bands 3.8–4.2 GHz are higher than for the 3.6–3.8 GHz frequencies, there could be additional benefits from combining these bands due to the large (600 MHz) contiguous bandwidth that would be available and which might enable additional innovation," it added.
"Finally there are bands below 2 GHz, i.e. 450–470 MHz, 470–694 MHz and possibly 1300–1518 MHz, which would be beneficial for improving services in harder to serve areas, but where the costs and constraints are likely to be high or very high and the timescales for change of use could be very long," it said.
Ofcom has already laid out plans to put existing radio frequency owned by the Ministry of Defence to use for facilitating mobile data services and is also looking into whether some frequency bands set aside for digital TV can also be re-purposed. It is also currently testing 'white space' technology to see whether the gaps between frequency bands can be utilised for transmitting mobile data.
"We consider that, in general, the optimal use of spectrum is most likely to be secured for society if spectrum is used efficiently, i.e. it is used to produce the maximum benefits (or value) for society," Ofcom said in its strategy paper. "We consider the benefits from efficient use to include those enjoyed by providers and consumers of services as well as the wider social benefits, or the indirect benefits, of services provided using spectrum."
With mobile communications and internet usage in the UK continuing to grow, Ofcom faces the challenge of staving off a potential 'capacity crunch' by making available as much spectrum as it can for operators to deliver services, telecoms law expert Jon Fell of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said.
"Inherent in that challenge is the fact that much of the existing spectrum is used for other purposes, including for digital television and radio services," Fell said. "Through technological advancements, spectrum sharing and 'white space' use is now possible, but plans to free up even more frequency bands will be required to keep pace with data demands as technological innovations drive the new data-heavy services of the future."
Real estate law specialist Suzanne Gill of Pinsent Masons said it was good to see Ofcom looking to play a greater role in spectrum management as usage increases. However, she warned that finding sites in which to roll out small cells technology was a "real challenge for operators" that needs to be overcome.
Ofcom itself acknowledged that siting issues present a barrier to increase mobile data capacity.
"The increasing use of small cells in mobile networks and offloading data onto fixed networks via Wi-Fi in areas of high demand may ... be relevant to meeting growing mobile capacity needs," Ofcom said. "Challenges associated with growth of these could include: availability of and access to suitable small cell sites including achieving the necessary planning consents for these sites."