Broadband, not broadcast is the future, as UK regulator prepares for 5G

With the launch at the beginning of November of new operator brand EE, the average UK punter is beginning to get to grips with the concept of LTE and 4G. But while it slowly seeps into wider public awareness, the UK regulator Ofcom has already published its plans to reserve spectrum for 5G.

This is a positive and forward thinking move for the UK, considering that as far as LTE was concerned it has lagged behind the US and many other European economies. Of course, nobody at this stage has any ideas what 5G will turn out to be in terms of technology, but what’s clear is that whatever form it takes it will need spectrum, and plenty of it.

The pleasingly chunky figure that Ofcom has used to illustrate this is the fact that last June in the UK more than 20 million gigabytes of mobile broadband data was used (at least three of those were mine), up from 9 million gigabytes in 2011. If we keep going, by 2030 demand they say will be 80 times higher.

That has had Ofcom eyeing up the 700Mhz frequencies which in the UK are occupied by the digital TV service known as Freeview. The 800MHz frequencies were only recently used by analogue TV, and now that has been switched off, the auctions for those frequencies can take place and will be used by the winners for LTE this summer.

But 700MHz could be the real jewel in the crown for carriers. As it is lower frequency it requires fewer base stations to reach further and has inherently better in-building penetration. Ofcom also said in its statement that, “it is important that different countries use the same frequencies of spectrum for mobile broadband to create economies of scale.”  The biggest market for 700MHz is obviously the US, but that is used for LTE, so it’s not clear at this stage if it will be relevant for 5G. There will be refarming, we suspect.

There will also be some work to be done if 5G is to use the same frequencies – LTE currently operates across 23 (count em’) frequencies, ranging from 700MHz up to 3.6GHz, making handset manufacturers make some hard decisions to make when designing their phones.

Poor old digital terrestrial TV in the UK will probably face having to be moved again. The good news is that for most folks using the Freeview service it will only require a small retuning of the box. But Freeview reception is also in danger from being knocked out for some viewers when LTE800 comes online in the summer of 2013. That has already had the alarm bells ringing and to deal with this the government has set up a company (Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited) to deal with the issue.

The message though is that the government realises that broadband is more relevant and more necessary than having more free-to-air TV channels showing episodes of ‘Deal of no Deal’. It does mean that there’s no real bandwidth available for adding more HD channels to the TV service, which in turn is great news for pay-tv providers such as Sky and Virgin. However, if there was enough bandwidth provided then those HD TV channels could be delivered via IP anyway. As we move towards a time where using streaming services becomes increasingly commonplace and ever more integrated into the pay-TV delivery mechanisms then the need for broadcast TV becomes ever less relevant.

Ofcom then has managed to get me excited about 5G and a bright, bandwidth-rich future. Now if only I could afford to sign up to LTE on EE…

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