Spectrum: UK mobile operators to 'use it or lose it'

Out-Law News | 18 Jul 2019 | 9:12 am | 2 min. read

Mobile network operators could have their rights to use radio spectrum bands revoked if they fail to meet minimum use levels under proposed new UK telecoms laws.

The UK government has opened a consultation on plans for 'use it or lose it' conditions to be applied to mobile spectrum licences.

"The implementation of a ‘use it or lose it’ condition will facilitate a dynamic, efficient market for spectrum and minimise under-utilisation of spectrum," the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) said.

DCMS has asked stakeholders for their view on whether "a ‘use it or lose it’ condition would promote spectrum trading, prevent under utilisation, enhance mobile coverage and/or mitigate barriers to entry".

The proposals form part of the UK government's plans to implement the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), a piece of EU legislation finalised in late 2018. EU member states have until 21 December 2020 to implement the EECC Directive into national law. As the implementation date falls prior to the end of 2020 when a planned transition period on the UK's exit from EU membership would end, the UK is obliged to implement the EU rules.

Telecoms expert Simon Colvin of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said: "The UK government has opened up a wide ranging consultation covering a number of issues high on the political agenda in the telecoms space. These include seeking views on issues concerning spectrum allocation, new regulatory powers and the body that should be responsible for using them, and the gathering of detailed commercial data from businesses in the market – including on operators' planned investment in very high capacity networks."

"The consultation represents the latest step towards preparing the UK legislative and regulatory environment for a future of high-speed full fibre and 5G broadband and to facilitate a strong competitive market to deliver them. The introduction of a 'use it or lose it' condition on mobile spectrum licenses is a positive approach in this regard as is aimed at ensuring effective competition in the market, greater agility amongst suppliers and that finite spectrum resource does not sit idle. We can expect details of the parameters concerning minimum use levels pertinent to the new 'use it or lose it' condition to be bottomed out through the consultation and subsequent policy announcements," he said.

The UK already has an Electronic Communications Code. It sets out rights and obligations regarding the deployment and maintenance of mobile phone masts and other telecoms infrastructure.

The new EECC is broader in scope and addresses a number of areas of telecoms law beyond rights of telecoms companies to install telecoms equipment on public or private property. It will impact both the activities of telecoms network and service providers as well as the national regulators in the EU countries they operate.

Under its plans for implementation, DCMS would provide for the reallocation of spectrum between 26.5 and 27.5 GHz for use for new '5G' mobile services, "subject to market demand and the absence of significant constraints and the need to protect essential defence functions".

The proposals would also see Ofcom gain new powers to attach roaming conditions to rights of use for spectrum in certain circumstances.

Further plans contained in the consultation paper support a push towards a future of "gigabit-capable" broadband networks.

The government's proposals are open to feedback until 10 September.