The 5th G is in sight!
Now don't get too excited, 5G is still a way off being commercially available to the likes of us, however, Ofcom (the communications regulator in the UK, who regulate the TV, radio and video-on-demand sectors, fixed-line telecoms, mobiles and postal services, plus the airwaves over which wireless devices operate.) have some additional spectrum for the networks to use for the next generation of mobile, and hope to auction it off later this year.
Ofcom is planning to auction 190MHz of high capacity spectrum in the 2.3GHz - 3.4GHz bands. This chunk of radiowave will increase the spectrum available for mobile phones and devices by nearly a third. Spectrum in these bands can carry large amounts of data so is well suited to the planned 5G.
- The 40MHz available in the 2.3GHz band will be available for immediate use by the winning mobile operators, to provide extra capacity for their existing 4G networks. The band is already supported by mobile devices from the likes of Apple and Samsung.
- The 150MHz available in the 3.4MHz band is not compatible with most current devices and will be purchased by the mobile networks for future use for the rollout of 5G networks when they are ready.
The reason why the 2.3GHz - 3.4GHz spectrums are now available to be sold off is down to a government initiative to release, or share, 500MHz of spectrum for civilian use by 2020. The 190MHz due to be auctioned in October/November was previously used by the Ministry of Defence but has been freed up as one of the first steps of this initiative.
In July Ofcom published its rules for the auction in order to safeguard competition now and in the future.
- No operator will be able to hold more than 255MHz of immediately usable spectrum, i.e. in the 2.3GHz band, following the auction.
- No operator will be able to hold more than 340MHz of the total amount of spectrum following the auction, equivalent to 37% of all the mobile spectrum that is expected to be useable in 2020. This includes spectrum available in this auction and in the 700MHz band. (We'll get to this bit later)
By imposing a cap on the overall amount of spectrum Ofcom hopes to satisfy competition concerns while enabling all operators to develop 5G services.
Philip Marnick, Ofcom's spectrum group director, said: "Spectrum is a vital resource that fuels the UK's economy. We've designed this auction to ensure that people and businesses continue to benefit from strong competition for mobile services. We want to see this spectrum in use as soon as possible. With smartphones and tablets using even more data, people need a choice of fast and reliable mobile networks. These new airwaves will support better services for mobile users, and allow operators to innovate and build for the future."
Ofcom figures show that -
- BT/EE currently holds 255 MHz of "immediately useable spectrum"
- Vodafone holds 176 MHz of "immediately useable spectrum"
- Three holds 90MHz of "immediately useable spectrum", and a further 40 MHz that will become useable in 2020
- O2 holds 86 MHz of "immediately useable spectrum"
Graph from Ofcom
So, the restrictions mean that -
- BT/EE are only allowed to win a maximum of 85 MHz of new spectrum (all of it in the 3.4 GHz band).
- Vodafone are only allowed to win a maximum 160 MHz (in either the 2.3 or 3.4 GHz bands)
- Three have no restrictions on this 2017 auction
- O2 have no restrictions on this 2017 auction
The auction is of course open to all with the set reserve prices of £10 million per 10 MHz lot of the 2.3 GHz band, and £1m for a 5 MHz block in the 3.4GHz band.
Ofcom isn't proposing any coverage obligations on the winning bidders like it did with the 4G auction in 2013. That's because the provision of these latest frequencies is more about boosting network capacity than expanding network coverage.
Bit of an issue....
All four UK mobile operators are expected to bid in the 2017 auction, but because of the Ofcom caps there have been legal challenges from Three, which could delay things.
Three had campaigned for a total cap of 30% of all the mobile spectrum that is expected to be useable in 2020, and has threatened legal action to the auction rules, objecting to the 37% total cap imposed by Ofcom. You see Three has more spectrum since its February acquisition of UK Broadband, with access to 40MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum (as you can see in the graph) and 84MHz in the 3.6-3.8GHz band. It also has 20MHz of spectrum in the 1400MHz band acquired from Qualcomm in 2015 (as does Vodafone), which is now becoming useable for mobile in Europe and could be used to improve network capacity in the near future. Three's rival networks fear that the threat of legal action is a delay tactic to push the auction back. Three can then get a head start in 5G using UK Broadband frequencies. Claims have been made that Three's recent launch of unlimited Netflix streaming means that the network operator already has sufficient capacity.
We'll just have to wait and see how this plays out. We should hopefully see the auction go ahead by the end of 2017 and then our UK network operators can get cracking on working on our 5G services. Fingers crossed.
The extra bit I mentioned before.
More recently Ofcom have confirmed plans to free up even more spectrum for future 5G services. There will be 116 MHz of spectrum within the 3.6 GHz to 3.8 GHz band that is not currently used for mobile data services. Ofcom say this will further help with existing customer demand for data services and will support innovative 5G services, and they intend to auction off the spectrum, alongside spectrum it will make available in the 700 MHz band, in 2019.
The 700MHz band is used by Freeview television and wireless microphones. The government has contributed £500-600 million to clearing the spectrum, a process which began in March 2017 with the reconfiguration of a digital terrestrial television (DTT) transmitter in Selkirk. There's still a lot to be done to move DTT across to the 470-690MHz spectrum which is why this auction isn't for another couple of years yet. Some satellite earth station operators, who receive transmissions from space, may be able to continue to operate alongside the mobile services in this spectrum without causing interference. So, who knows, your 5G calls in 2025 could be carried on the same frequency as space calls!
Ofcom may well include further caps on the amount of spectrum operators can win in the future auctions but won't publish rules for those until much nearer the time. Those rules will take into account the competitive landscape and spectrum holdings of the operators at that time. Ofcom has indicated that licences for 700MHz spectrum to be auctioned will include obligations to ensure improved rural coverage which is good news.
And now for the really exciting bit!
A new 5G testbed has been set up in Brighton, with a number of the area's leading digital entrepreneurs invited to test it out.
Following the £1.2 million investment from the Government's Local Growth Fund, Wired Sussex and the University of Brighton will carry out a three-year programme of 5G-related engagement with local businesses.
The project will give digital businesses, including those who build apps and content for smart phones and mobile use, the opportunity to understand how their products operate under 5G conditions. They will be able to work with University of Brighton academics, and other members of the research community to develop new ideas which benefit from the significantly faster and more reliable connections that 5G can provide.
Situating the testbed in Brighton further enhances the city's growing international reputation for creativity and innovation, particularly in the digital sector which now contributes over £1bn per annum to the city's economy.
Wired Sussex said: "5G is an incredibly fast, always-on wireless mobile technology with almost zero latency. However, it is not just an evolution of 2G, 3G, 4G – but a revolutionary enabling technology that will support game-changing new digital products and services." "...we will be exploring what 5G technology is, why it's a revolutionary step forward compared to previous mobile telecommunication technologies (2G, 3G and 4G), and what the opportunities are for innovators and businesses working in Virtual/Augmented Reality, Internet of Things and telecommunications".
5G – it won't be long!