Would Make The Air Fair’s Spectrum Cap Actually Make UK Mobile Networks Better?

ANALYSIS: Three’s drive to get consumers to complain Ofcom is underway but spectrum is only part of the equation and a few truths are being stretched

Does anyone actually like their mobile network? Despite the importance of smartphones to our everyday lives, we’re always complaining about our mobile bills, not being able to get a signal, and the annoyance of being locked into a 24 month contract.

This makes operators an easy target; in the current telecoms environment there is one network easier to single out than any other: BT-EE. Three, And TalkTalk, CityFibre and the other backers of the ‘Make The Air Fair’ campaign know it.

They want Ofcom to impose a cap of 30 percent on the total amount of spectrum any company can hold. At present, the regulator says BT has 45 percent of the airwaves available at present and Make The Air Fair claims 42 percent.


Make The Air Fair

The campaign’s materials argue a fairer distribution of spectrum will make mobile services cheaper, networks faster, and coverage more plentiful.

Simple, right? Well not really. The campaign is in danger of oversimplifying what is a hugely complex and political issue by plastering bold claims on a series of billboards in a bid to put pressure on authorities to take action. Sound familiar?

If you entered or exited Waterloo station last week you’d have seen posters depicted Ofcom CEO Sharon White as a superhero urging members of the public to make their feelings known by Tweeting ‘#TellSharon’.

It’s not clear whether White approves of her stylised image gracing adverts across the UK, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest most people don’t know who she is nor care about what technology powers their phone so long as it works. My companion at Waterloo did not.

Mobile coverage is a hugely emotive issue and the campaign knows this. As well as the similarities with the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign in the lead up to the EU referendum, the effort is reminiscent of Southern Rail’s attempt to get irate train passengers to tweet the unions with their anger about ongoing strike action. Normal routes have failed so it wants to generate public outrage.

While CityFibre and TalkTalk are BT’s opponents in the fixed market and Relish needs 3.4GHz for its ‘fixed wireless’ service, Three is the campaign’s main cheerleader.

What mobile network are you using?

  • Three (30%)
  • EE (25%)
  • Vodafone (19%)
  • O2 (16%)
  • Other (11%)

Loading ... Loading ...

Spectrum cap

Its rationale is obvious. After it became clear the proposed £8.25 billion merger with O2 was not going to receive approval from the European Commission (EC), the Hutchison-owned operator reverted to its role as market underdog by calling for the spectrum cap.

But had the merger been approved, Three-O2 would have been the largest mobile operator in the UK in terms of customer numbers and by the campaign’s own calculations would have controlled 29 percent of Britain’s spectrum resources – just one percent less than the proposed cap.

It’s true that BT-EE does have a lot of spectrum (45 percent of the UK’s holdings according to Ofcom and 42 percent by Make The Air Fair, but not all of it is used for mobile services, and Ofcom did not require BT or EE to sell any spectrum like it did when T-Mobile and Orange merged. And who won that spectrum? Three.

BT was an independent winner of 2.6GHz in the 2013 auction and planned to use it for an ‘inside-out’ mobile network comprising the BT Wi-Fi network of hotspots and a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) partnership with EE before it bought the operator outright.

Later this year, Ofcom will auction off 40MHz worth of 2.3GHz spectrum and 150MHz of 3.4GHz bandwidth and it appears this sale is Make The Air Fair’s initial target.

Read more on page 2…

Quiz: What do you know about 4G?