Ofcom frees up 800MHz spectrum ahead of schedule

Rethink Wireless comment: as promised, UK regulator Ofcom has cleared the 800MHz digital dividend spectrum for commercial mobile use, earlier than originally expected. That opens the way for the operators which acquired the frequencies in this year’s auction to prepare 4G roll-outs in the band, helping Vodafone, Telefonica O2 and 3UK to catch up with market leader EE, which already has LTE services running in its 1.8GHz GSM spectrum.

All four UK cellcos secured 800MHz licences in the February sale, and EE plans to trial carrier aggregation over its bands later this year to boost capacity and speed.

Opening up 800MHz as quickly as possible was one of the concessions made to secure the agreement of EE’s rivals to Ofcom’s green light for the biggest cellco to refarm its 1.8GHz spectrum. Since it is the only UK carrier with its 2G network in that band – considered a particularly good one for LTE because of a growing global ecosystem and its balance between low frequency coverage and high frequency capacity – EE gained significant competitive advantage by rolling out 4G before the auction took place.

That left the other three cellcos waiting to secure new licences before they could catch up – Ofcom auctioned 800MHz and 2.6GHz frequencies earlier this year. It has also cleared the way for the 900MHz GSM band – operated by Vodafone and O2 – and the 2.1GHz 3G band, to be refarmed for LTE. However, neither of these options has anything like the global device nor roaming base of 1.8GHz and they are unlikely to be repurposed for 4G on a broad basis for many years.

Freeing up the 800MHz spectrum, which had to be vacated by analogue TV services migrating to digital, was finished five months ahead of schedule, and was finalised this week. O2 has been promising a summer launch of LTE services, while Vodafone is waiting until late summer or early autumn, perhaps to coincide with a new iPhone launch (though the iPhone 5 supports EE’s 1.8GHz LTE band, but not 800MHz or 2.6GHz. However, given the number of launches in these bands, especially in Europe, in 2013-14, Apple is expected to extend support to these frequencies with the next model).

The last UK TV signals were transferred in northeast Scotland and the Scottish Western Isles this week, by the organization in charge of the clearance program, Digital UK. Ofcom CEO Ed Richards said: “This week we are clearing the path for 4G mobile broadband, allowing mobile companies to provide coverage across the UK.”

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