Ofcom Plots 5G Future With ‘Capacity Crunch’ 700MHz Plans

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe’s Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

Regulator looks to 700MHz spectrum as it preps for potential 5G auction later this decade

Ofcom has laid out plans of how to cope with the massive increase in data flying over UK networks and airwaves, with ideas for a future auction of more radio spectrum spectrum for what are tentatively being clled the auction of “5G” services already forming.

A massive 20 million Gigabytes of data is now being consumed in a year over the UK’s mobile networks. That’s over twice as much as last year’s figure of nine million GB, according to Ofcom’s Infrastructure report released today. Meanwhile, the average speed of a fixed-line internet connection in the UK has risen by 69 percent in just one year, leading to a huge rise in data consumption.

To deal with this data explosion, Ofcom is planning to free up and auction some spectrum in the 700MHz band, which is currently used for broadcast digital TV. This spectrum is already used in “4G” services in the US, as seen in the new iPad and iPhone 5.

Because the spectrum won’t be available till 2018, Ofcom expects this will be used for the next technology following 4G or LTE, and it is therefore being referred to as “5G”.

Freeing up 700MHz

To free up the 700MHz band Ofcom needs cooperation both at home and internationally. The plans build on a resolution passed at the 2012 World Radio Conference earlier this year, in which countries from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Northern Asia announced an intention to allow the 700MHz band to be used for mobile broadband. If the plans are given the green light at the next World Radio Conference in 2015, Ofcom will press on with organising the band and preparing it for an auction sale later this decade.

Harmonisation across different nations will be vital in the future, Ofcom said. “Only additional spectrum which has been internationally harmonised for mobile broadband is likely to be used because harmonisation increases economies of scale, widening the availability of handsets and reducing prices,” it said in its report.

Lower frequency bands are being sought right now due to their “good propagation characteristics”, which potentially reduce the number of new mobile sites required, and offer better quality of service in difficult to reach indoor and outdoor locations.

“The 700 MHz band … represents the most attractive option for providing additional lower frequency spectrum because there is now momentum behind it being allocated for mobile broadband use on a global scale,” Ofcom said in its report.

5G future

Across Europe, governments are looking at other emerging higher frequency spectrum options, include the 1.452 to 1.492GHz and 3.6 to 3.8 GHz bands, as we head towards a 5G future in the latter stages of the decade.

Earlier this year, TechWeekEurope revealed a trial of 5G services is set to go ahead in the UK in 2013, which should offer users speeds of up to 200Mbps. That will be delivered by the £35 million 5G Innovation Centre, based at the University of Surrey.4G, Mobile, Smartphone © Digital Storm Shutterstock 2012

An Ofcom spokesperson told TechWeekEurope it currently believes the opening up of the 700MHz band will coincide nicely with the arrival of 5G networks. “That’s the sort of time we’d expect 5G devices and standards to be emerging,” the spokesperson said.

Another big issue for Ofcom will be in moving digital terrestrial TV services over from 700MHz spectrum to the 600MHz band, although the regulator said consumers would only have to slightly retune their devices to pick signals up.

The migration itself will not take place until 2018 at the earliest. In the meantime, the 600MHz band looks likely to be used by broadcasters of HD services on Freeview, while white space devices will look for the unused gaps in the airwaves, potentially providing broadband services.

Meanwhile, the government is hoping to release at least 500 MHz of public sector spectrum holdings below 5GHz by 2020. Last December, it said it had identified the bands from which approximately 470MHz of the 500MHz could be sourced.

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