Ofcom last week published proposals to liberalise all mobile licences in the 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2100 MHz frequency bands – previously restricted to 2G and 3G technologies – to permit the deployment of 4G services
The proposals have been published in response to pressure from O2, Vodafone and Three, after Ofcom agreed to EE’s request to liberalise the 1800MHz spectrum band in August 2012, allowing the company to launch 4G services ahead of its rivals.
The move will “meet a long standing objective to liberalise all mobile licences so that there are no regulatory barriers to the deployment of the latest available mobile technology,” according to Ofcom.
The news comes as the long-awaited auction of 4G licenses in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands finally gets underway. The new spectrum will almost double the amount of airwaves currently available for mobile broadband services.
Seven bidders are competing for a total of 28 lots across three different types of spectrum. The bidding will continue over several rounds and it is expected to take a number of weeks until the final winners are known.
Commenting on the news, Ovum analyst Matthew Howett said operators will welcome Ofcom’s decision to liberalise the 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2.1GHz bands, but warned that most operators are unlikely to deploy 4G services in these bands in the short term.
This is because the bands will first need to be cleared of their existing use through a process of refarming, which is likely to take “years rather than months,” according to Howett.
“Ofcom’s previous proposals to liberalise the 900MHz and 1800MHz bands for 3G services were famously met with fierce opposition from some parts of the industry, since at one point they implied taking back spectrum from some operators and redistributing it to others in order to more fairly distribute the benefits that operators get from the refarming,” he said.
“Arguably those proposals heavily contributed to the delays the UK has seen with starting its 4G auction which finally got under way in January 2013.”
Ofcom's proposals also include increasing the maximum permitted base station transmit power in the 900 MHz frequency band for 3G technology, as requested by O2 and Vodafone who hold licences in this spectrum band.
The regulator is now inviting responses to the proposals online, by email or by post, before 29 March. The full consultation document is available here.