Out-Law News 2 min. read

Spectrum to be reallocated for mobile services earlier than planned

Radio frequencies currently used by broadcasters and for supporting the use of wireless microphones at events will be made exclusively available to mobile network operators (MNOs) by "no later than Q2 2020", according to new Ofcom proposals.

The UK telecoms regulator's proposals would make spectrum in the 700MHz band available to support mobile data services earlier than had been planned. It had previously said its target was to make the spectrum exclusively available to mobile data service providers by the end of 2021. The revised timescale for reallocation of the 700MHz band would accord with legislative proposals that were outlined by the European Commission earlier this year.

Before the spectrum can be made available to MNOs some digital terrestrial TV services will need to be moved to other frequencies, together with other "audio PMSE devices". PMSE stands for programme making and special events.

Ofcom said that it might have to revoke an "interim multiplexes’ licence" held by Arqiva to use frequency in the 600MHz band so that digital terrestrial TV services can be shifted from the 700MHz band into the 600MHz band. It admitted that Arqiva would need to "modify" some of its infrastructure to accommodate the changes.

"We propose to move the interim multiplexes to alternative frequencies from the end of 2017 onwards," Ofcom said. "This would enable us to start changing the main national DTT services’ frequencies earlier than originally planned. Taken together with other acceleration measures, this would enable us to bring forward the point at which the 700MHz band is available for mobile data use by around 18 months – targeting no later than Q2 2020."

Ofcom also said that some spectrum within the 700MHz band that it had not previously allocated for use by MNOs would be made available to those companies. It referred to this as the "centre gap" spectrum and said it would best be utilised by those deploying 'Supplemental Downlink' (SDL) technology. SDL is seen as a promising technology because it provides additional capacity for data to be download to devices as it is transferred from a network over radio frequencies.

"Making additional mobile spectrum available will allow MNOs to meet growth in demand for mobile data more cost-effectively than they otherwise would have and will also allow them to increase network speeds more cheaply," Ofcom said. "We would 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 have not estimated directly the magnitude of the benefits of making the centre gap available for mobile data. However, recent market benchmarks suggest they would be well in excess of £100m over 20 years. All this considered, we propose allocating the centre gap to mobile data," it said.

In a statement, however, Arqiva told Out-Law.com that it has doubts over whether SDL technology will be ready to be used to exploit spectrum in the centre gap by the middle of 2020. The company has argued for the centre gap spectrum to be used for interim multiplexes at least until the end of 2023.

"Arqiva has noted the consultation and is in the process of evaluating the proposals put forward by Ofcom," an Arqiva spokesperson told Out-Law.com. "We will be responding, in detail, in due course. Our objective is to represent the interests of Freeview viewers, channels and the platform as we move through the 700 MHz clearance process and beyond. We are seeking to support Ofcom in its aim to clear the majority of the spectrum by mid-2020 and are mindful of the choices that need to be taken to enable this."

"The interim multiplexes play a valuable role in bringing a wider range of channels and HD services – including BBC News HD, BBC 4 HD, CBeebies HD, 4Seven HD – to Freeview viewers and we will explore ways to retain the multiplexes to enable these services to continue. We look forward to a more detailed discussion with Ofcom on the timeframe for any release of spectrum to SDL. We note that the process for developing standards and equipment is still currently uncertain, and therefore in our view it is questionable whether SDL will be ready to use the spectrum from 2020," it said.

Ofcom's proposals are open to consultation until 20 May.

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