You might have seen or heard about mobile phone spectrum in the news recently. It’s a topic that’s been brought into focus by the planned 4G spectrum auction due to take place next year, and it’s a subject that’s really important to us.
Why? Well, put simply, radio spectrum is the lifeblood of a mobile network. It’s the radiowaves that carry your mobile calls, send your texts and connect you to the internet, and as a result, the spectrum up for sale at next year’s auction will be hugely important in shaping the quality and type of services mobile networks will offer in the future.
Here’s a quick potted history of how spectrum has been distributed in the UK to date.
At the moment, Three only has a licence to use radiowaves in the 2.1Ghz frequency range. This bandwidth was auctioned by the Government in 2000 for mobile network operators to run 3G technology. Together Three, Orange, T-Mobile, O2 and Vodafone paid in excess of £22bn for the right to use it.
Other spectrum exists, of course, and a fair amount was allocated to Vodafone, O2, Orange and T- Mobile in the 1980s and ‘90s when they introduced the UK’s first 2G mobile services.
Vodafone and O2 each have spectrum in the wavelengths around 900Mhz. Vodafone and O2 also have a small quantity of 1,800Mhz spectrum, while T-Mobile and Orange (now under the combined name Everything Everywhere) have the rights to the rest of the 1,800MHz frequency band. These mobile operators pay a comparably smaller sum to the Government each year for the rights to use it.
Up until January this year, both the 900Mhz and 1,800Mhz bandwidth could only be used for 2G mobile phone services – i.e. the basic calls and texts. However in January this year Ofcom, which regulates the telecoms industry on behalf of the Government, decided to permit 3G services on all bandwidths.
They did this without charging the operators with the old legacy 2G spectrum holdings any more money for the advantage, and without redistributing the spectrum as other countries have done to ensure all the mobile networks have access to similar frequencies.
This change is significant, and in our view has created an imbalance in the UK mobile market. Suddenly, at no extra cost to them, four of the five operators have access to masses more spectrum for 3G data use, without the total amount of spectrum being balanced out amongst everyone.
So next year’s auction is important because it presents Ofcom with a unique opportunity to even things up by making two further bands of spectrum available. These are the 800Mhz bandwidth, currently being used by the analogue TV signal, and spectrum at 2.6Ghz – currently being used for some radar applications.
Naturally, we’re interested in both these frequencies, because they both offer considerable benefits to our customers and the services we can offer.
The lower the frequency the further the mobile signal will travel. So running 800Mhz on Three’s network of almost 13,000 base stations would enhance our current network coverage across the UK.
Meanwhile the higher 2.6Ghz frequency spectrum is great at carrying larger quantities of data – so again, add some of that to our network and the speed and capacity we can offer customers will soar – great news for smartphone users and those relying on our Mobile Broadband service to access the web.
Ultimately, of course, we also want the spectrum to ensure we can continue to lead the mobile internet revolution and bring to the market the kind of next generation technologies customers in other countries are already beginning to see – such as LTE or 4G.
Three’s focus has always been on opening up the advantages of smartphones and Mobile Broadband to as many people as possible – whether through pricing, coverage or convenience. For us, getting access to more spectrum, and pushing for next year’s auction not to be delayed unnecessarily, is about levelling the playing field and continuing with our ambition to help people discover those simple, new and exciting everyday things that make mobile so valuable to everyone.