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UK wireless watchdog to 'open' 72% of public spectrum

Few new frequencies to be de-regulated, though

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UK telecoms regulator Ofcom is to put over 70 per cent of the nation's public airwaves under the influence of market forces in a bid to eliminate inefficiencies in spectrum management that have, it claims, "limited the innovation and development of higher-value services".

Its plan will see licensees not only able to develop new applications for their segment of the spectrum but to sell those licences to others, on the open market.

The move follows the organisation's Spectrum Framework Review project, which arose out of Ofcom's formation in December 2003 out of the old Radio Authority and other broadcasting and communications-centric regulatory bodies.

It was also prompted by the controversy surrounding the 3G licence auctions, which yielded huge, over-the-odds sums for the Treasury and whose terms and conditions continue to limit companies keen to get in - or get out of - that market.

The Review's recommendations call in part for greater flexibility to allow licensed spectrum - covering applications ranging from taxi two-way radios to mobile phones, TV and radio - to be allocated and traded on the open market. It also suggests more spectrum be de-regulated.

The 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands used by Wi-Fi are examples of parts of the spectrum that no longer require users to buy a licence to operate, commercially or privately, within them.

However, Ofcom admitted that only seven per cent of the spectrum is ever likely to be de-regulated, at least within the 2010 timeframe the Review looks to.

Ofcom is expected to publish spectrum trading rules later this month, paving the way for trading to commence in December. Licence holders will be able to sell on licenses to other bodies without the need to seek the regulator's permission.

They will also be able to put their spectrum to uses not defined in the original licence, ending the current regime which licences not only specific bands of the spectrum, but permit only specified technologies to be used within those bands.

Initially, those licences that may be traded include those covering analogue public-access mobile radio, national paging, data networks, national and regional private business radio, common base stations, fixed wireless access, scanning telemetry and fixed terrestrial links. However, Ofcom proposes to broaden the range of tradable licence categories during 2005.

Ofcom stressed that it's still going to have a job after all this is complete: it will still be needed to maintain control over key spectrum licences where international agreements and standards come into play, typically for applications such as radar, avionics and ship-borne communications systems.

It's also going to continue to monitor spectrum usage and deal with anyone found interfering with other users' spectrum, such as pirate radio stations. Indeed, Ofcom reckons that it's going to be kept even busier dealing with the increase in interferences between transmissions is expects to arise from the increased usage flexibility the framework offers. It admitted it would "intervene where necessary to make sure that these initiatives do not result in excessive harmful interference for other users".

However, the new framework is unlikely to see devices such as Griffin Technology's iTrip become legal in the UK. The transmitter, designed to beam songs played on an iPod to nearby FM radios, is currently illegal to use in the UK, since it can potentially broadcast on channels licensed by Ofcom under the terms of the 1949 Wireless Telegraphy Act for licensees exclusive use. That exclusivity is currently maintained irrespective of the relative output of radio station transmitters and the puny (by comparison) iTrip. ®

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