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Ofcom sets out vision for greater spectrum sharing

The UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom, is embarking on a programme of research that will pave the way towards greater sharing of the radio spectrum to support growth in demand and new technologies in the coming years.

Ofcom said better data on how the spectrum is currently being used and innovation in the ways it can be shared would support more users, in the light of the anticipated roll-out of full fibre and 6G technology across the UK.

The Spectrum Roadmap (38 page / 2.67MB PDF) sets out three key themes for Ofcom’s long-term, cross-sectoral work areas on spectrum: network evolution and convergence; accelerating innovation and sharing with spectrum sandboxes; and better data for better spectrum management.

The regulator said it would expand its current work on monitoring and influencing the development of next-generation wireless network technologies, including monitoring emerging demand ahead of 6G mobile networks, and solutions that could enable voice and data services to be delivered directly from satellites.

In the coming months Ofcom will undertake a new review of spectrum used by fixed wireless services, with a focus on higher frequency bands. Currently most spectrum use is below 100 GHz due to technological limitations.

Telecoms expert Rémi Bresson Auba of Pinsent Masons said: “While there is a continued need for regulators to clear out entire portions of spectrum across a whole country to be used by one single entity, we welcome Ofcom’s programme to look at ways to share the spectrum. Indeed, the continued growth of mobile data traffic and the ever increasing demand for faster broadband services make additional mobile spectrum absolutely paramount. Spectrum sharing, which would notably enable the use of so called white and grey spaces, would, if handled appropriately, free up needed resources thereby encouraging investment and innovation.”

Ofcom said it would work with industry and academia to explore how ‘spectrum sandboxes’ – sharing the spectrum in a defined geographic area – could work in practice. For example, it said there was already interest for higher power outdoor use in the 6 GHz band which was used by hundreds of fixed links, but a sandbox would allow parties to share the band.

The sandbox model would allow participants to experiment with different approaches and algorithms for sharing spectrum and make it quicker and easier to agree sharing conditions, according to the roadmap.

However, Ofcom said the success of a sandbox approach would depend on industry engagement and the quality of collaboration.

The future of spectrum management will also be informed by better data. Ofcom plans to find out what data is already readily available from network management systems, and collect existing real world data to improve its propagation and co-existence modelling. It also wants to improve its understanding of the performance of active antenna systems, which have helped expand the use of higher frequencies.

Meanwhile Ofcom’s spectrum assurance team will also use more real-world data to improve its work. The regulator is exploring the introduction of an opt-in ‘proof of concept’ interface allowing spectrum users to log events where there is interference in transmissions.

The roadmap also outlined Ofcom’s existing spectrum activities and projects, including sustained improvement in the efficiency of spectrum use and increased flexibility to support innovation. Ofcom will consult across a numbers of specific areas, including the release of more spectrum for wireless broadband and enabling growing demand for drone use in the course of the next two years, as outlined in its plan of work for 2022/23 (56 page / 2.4MB PDF) published at the end of March.

“We strongly welcome Ofcom’s work on influencing the development of next-generation wireless network technologies, including monitoring solutions that could enable voice and data services to be delivered directly from satellites. This initiative would enable reaching people and businesses in areas that do not yet benefit from fixed broadband access either due to geographic or commercial reasons.”

“We also believe the consultation on the release of more spectrum for drone use is highly desirable. The socioeconomic benefits that can be delivered by drones are profound, ranging from delivering products, including life-saving medicines, to remote areas to enabling emergency services to rapidly assess a developing critical situation. As such it is crucial that sufficient spectrum be allocated in order to make full use of this technology.”

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