Out-Law News 3 min. read

Ofcom spectrum strategy designed to manage expected data explosion from mobile services and internet of things

Radio frequency bands are only likely to be made available for the provision of mobile data services to the UK public if there is international agreement on the use of that specific spectrum for that purpose, Ofcom has said.

The regulator has published a new spectrum management strategy (60-page / 646KB PDF) that has identified "future mobile data demands" as one of six priorities to address over the next 10 years.

It acknowledged that technological advances are driving consumers and businesses to increasingly use mobile devices to access the internet and said that the resultant strain expected to be put on the underlying networks was a challenge that could be met in part by re-allocating existing spectrum to handle the anticipated associated increase in data demands.

Ofcom admitted that, although spectrum re-allocation could increase the capacity needed for the provision of mobile broadband services, the re-purposing process would "involve significant costs and disruption". It said that the re-allocation of spectrum would only be pursued as an option "where ... the incremental value of the new use was greater than the value associated with alternative or incumbent spectrum uses".

In addition, it said that it would be unlikely to look to allocate certain frequencies to be used for the provision of mobile data services unless there was a global, or at least European, consensus to allocate those bands for such use.

"Only bands that are internationally harmonised are likely to be economically viable for the delivery of mobile data services," Ofcom said. "International harmonisation is therefore essential to operators, handset and device component manufacturers as it delivers the economies of scale required for the development and production of network and consumer equipment."

"Harmonisation also acts as a signpost to manufacturers on which bands it is best to concentrate their development efforts and offers consumers a wider choice of mobile devices developed and sold in global markets that are compatible with the use of globally harmonised frequency bands. International processes at both ITU and European levels will be very important in setting expectations around the use of additional bands for mobile services," it said.

Ofcom said that it is considering re-allocating spectrum currently used for the provision of digital terrestrial TV (DTT) programmes for mobile broadband use and that it may have to devote resources to help identify ways to ensure DTT providers can continue to deliver services undisrupted if it decides to sanction the re-allocation.

Earlier this year Digital UK, a group set up by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Arqiva, said that broadcasters should not lose their access to frequencies that currently support DTT in preference for support for the growing demand for mobile data services. A report it released claimed that the allocation of spectrum for the provision of DTT services offers greater economic value than allocating the spectrum for mobile data services.

Its other strategic priorities for spectrum management include continuing its work to help with the release of spectrum owned by public sector organisations for alternative purposes than that for which they are currently used. Ofcom has already announced plans to auction off spectrum used by the Ministry of Defence.

The regulator also said that it is taking steps to anticipate the increase in machine-to-machine (M2M) communications as part of the expected boom in the 'internet of things' (IoTs). The IoTs is a catch-all phrase used to describe the increasing connections and associated data flows between devices. The term reflects advancements in technology such as smart grids in the energy industry, connected cars in manufacturing and the otherwise increasing connectivity of household items including fridges and thermostats.

"The broad and highly heterogeneous nature of M2M / IoT applications suggests that different solutions could be required to meet the needs of different types of application," Ofcom said. "These could include delivery options that are already available (e.g. private networks, public cellular networks, Wi-Fi or other existing SRD solutions) as well as new solutions based on emerging technologies and new bands."

Ed Richards, Ofcom’s chief executive, said: “As we move to an increasingly digital infrastructure across our economy it is wireless services which offer some of the most exciting opportunities for growth and innovation. Our spectrum management strategy is aimed at ensuring the regulatory approach helps the UK take as many of these opportunities as possible. We are looking forward to working closely with people and organisations across the UK and beyond who share our ambitions for this crucial and growing area."

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