The UK’s wireless spectrum management is no longer fit for purpose

The UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom is under increasing pressure to modernise the way it allocates our spectrum resources. Never before has the demand for spectrum been so intense, with more and more mobile services, the massive use of Wi-fi, Bluetooth, TV, digital radio, satellite communications, military, transport and emergency services to name just a few.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the coming years, we will see even more demand, from applications such as 5G, tele-health, driverless and driver-assisted vehicles, faster broadband and the Internet of Things (IoT).

So it may come as a surprise that the way in which huge chunks of our precious spectrum is routinely allocated, is by national auction. This means that an organisation is granted exclusive use of parts of the spectrum for the entire nation, with no obligation to actually use it. In most cases, such as parts purchased by the big mobile operators, they only ever install transmission equipment where there are large populations – ie. less than 20% of the land mass.

So what does that mean to us and why does this matter? Quite a lot more than you might think actually…

  1. National allocation means that huge parts of the UK do not get access to the services that the operator promises, as it is not cost-effective for them. Think 3G and 4G – does it work everywhere? Do we all still lose signal and drop calls as we drive or walk around?
  2. If operators focus in high population areas, it follows that our suburban, semi or deep-rural homes and businesses miss out most. On TV channels, on mobile coverage, and most irritatingly of all, on fast broadband.
  3. 20% efficiency on any national resource is a national disgrace. Just imagine if only 20% of roads were available because the government allocated them all to a couple of road hauliers. Or what if only 20% of NHS hospital beds could be used because they had all been purchased by private hospitals. It is unthinkable that our regulator should operate in such an arcane way.
  4. 5G will present exciting new opportunities and business models which will enable lower cost services for enterprises and major hubs such as hospitals, airports, and train termini. But these won’t be accessible with legacy national approach to allocation of spectrum.

Ofcom is about to repeat this approach again with the proposed auction of some spectrum in the 3.6 to 3.8 GHz band. This is likely to be purchased by the large mobile companies for use in their urban 5G roll-outs over the next 10 years. It is estimated that it will be used in around 13% of the UK landmass. At the same time, the UK’s independent fixed wireless broadband industry (a mostly privately-funded group of over 100 companies across the UK) are desperate to help deliver high performance broadband to many of our rural homes and businesses whereas full fibre access may take years or even decades. This band would allow them to install 100 Mbps broadband to millions of properties starting right away, at very low cost.

According to the latest Plum Report into Fixed Wireless and 5G opportunities, published in June 2018 (http://plumconsulting.co.uk/high-performance-wireless-broadband-opportunity-rural-enterprise-5g/), fixed wireless technology not only offers very attractive cost levels where full fibre roll-out will be unworkable, but also is rapid to deploy. Furthermore, modern fixed wireless systems offer broadband service speeds comparable to those over fibre.

 

There is a better way…

Spectrum can be allocated in any number of ways, and the regulator can also insist that operators ‘use it or lose it’. One of the most popular and flexible models is to allocate spectrum on a geographic basis. Rather than allocating everything to a single operator, let them buy the most valuable chunks, securing the best deal for the Treasury, then let other players purchase the rights to use these frequencies in the other areas. This way, the Treasury wins, but more importantly, the UK economy and consumers gain too. This new approach is already gaining pace in other countries such as the US. If, at this critical time, UK Government doesn’t innovate, there is serious risk that the UK will be left behind in the global digital economy over the next decade.

And there’s more. Innovative organisations, such as Nominet, have already begun to market the very tools and systems needed to administer this flexible approach to spectrum management, and are exporting this technology to the world. If only it was adopted more widely within the UK, it would help create a more credible international export market for spectrum management and allow the UK to establish itself as a world-leader in this field.

Please support us by insisting that Ofcom modernises it’s approach in managing this precious and finite national asset.

About UKWISPA:

The UK Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (UKWISPA) is the official trade body for the Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) broadband providers, often known and WISPs (Wireless ISPs). UKWISPA is a non-for-profit organisation founded in 2015 whose mission is to help promote and develop the FWA market. https://ukwispa.org

About the author:

David Burns is the Chairman of UKWISPA and Managing Director of Boundless Networks, which provides internet access to businesses and homes across much of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Contact details:

David Burns (Chairman)

UKWISPA

david@ukwispa.org

03333 660036