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Ofcom maps out next spectrum auction

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UK regulator Ofcom has mapped out the details of the upcoming "L Band" auctions, deciding against holding onto any spectrum for Brussels despite the commission's continuing enthusiasm for Europe-wide allocations.

L Band runs from 1452 to 1492MHz, putting it between the two most popular GSM frequencies - 900 and 1800MHz - with much of the benefits of both.

Ofcom published its proposals last year, and has now followed up with an Information Memorandum regarding the auction regulations which will come in to force next month.

Various options are examined in the memorandum, including throwing the spectrum open to unlicensed use (in the same way as 2.4GHz is unlicensed), but that was never likely to happen when Ofcom believes that raising the maximum amount of money is the best way to achieve value.

Ofcom has decided to split the spectrum into two blocks, 1452 to 1479.5MHz and 1479.5 to 1492MHz, with the lower block split into 16 chunks of 1.7MHz and the upper one sold as a single lot.

The small divisions in the lower block will make it harder for any company wanting to grab a big chunk of spectrum for, say, a national broadcast network, but it reflects one of the problems with technology-neutral auctions.

When the 3G licences were auctioned off the technology was known, so the packages of spectrum were matched to the technology - sold in pairs so users could send and receive on different frequencies, and 5MHz wide as demanded by the 3G standard. But when you've no idea what the buyer is going to do with the spectrum, it's harder to know how to sell it.

One option Ofcom has rejected is holding back the upper block in the hope of some coordinated Europe-wide technology-driven allocation, on the basis that this would take a couple of years, but it would also be against Ofcom's market-driven ethos.

Indeed, Ofcom rejects the idea that this auction is going to devalue the 3G licences on the grounds that the UK-only nature of the spectrum makes it unlikely to complete with 3G services.

L Band is used for DMB in many countries (multimedia over DAB), and the late-lamented Lobster phone incorporated an internal L Band receiver in the hope that a successful launch would fund bidding for the spectrum when it became available. Unfortunately, the Lobster and its associated mobile TV service was a complete failure.

But the EU is still pushing for part of the digital dividend to be reserved for DVB-H across Europe, and (ideally) beyond.

EU telecoms commissioner Viviane Reding made clear during yesterday's speech to the DVB World Conference that she considers it her personal responsibility to spread the DVB word and is next week off to India to do just that.

This auction, scheduled for May 2008, should be the last big chunk of spectrum sold off before the digital dividend comes under the hammer towards the end of this year.

If the EU wants to reserve a chunk of that, it's going to have to move quickly, otherwise Ofcom will have sold it off before the EU picks a frequency, let alone gets it mandated across the region. ®

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