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Ofcom lifts the lid on L-band bidders

Who wants a piece of spectrum pie?

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UK regulator Ofcom has published the list of approved bidders for the forthcoming L-Band spectrum.

L-Band fits between 1452 and 1492MHz, and Ofcom has decided to split the band into 16 small lots, 1.7MHz wide each, and one big chunk (at the top of the range) of 12.5MHz across.

We can't tell who's planning to bid for what, but we do know the nine companies who are planning to bid for something (pdf).

Some of the bidders' intentions remain obscure. Adolphus Limited is registered to a solicitor's office in James Street, and E-Portal Holdings is a Kuwait-based company with businesses in several industries.

Others are more likely planning to expand their operations: The Joint Radio Company runs spectrum for the UK energy industry, so it'll be interested in some of the 1.7MHz chunks for fixed links, while Arquive runs most of the UK's broadcasting so will be planning to sublet the band to a broadcaster in that space.

Vectone is an MVNO operator with operations in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands, but why it wants L-Band spectrum in the UK is anyone's guess. MLL Telecom provides enterprise networks around the UK, so could be looking at some of the smaller chunks to serve its customers.

But the most interesting bidders are O2, Qualcomm, and WorldSpace. O2 won't say what it's planning, but last we heard it was eyeing up 594MHz for its DVB-H deployments. It could also be hoping to pick up something cheaper before the big digital-dividend auction at the end of the year (when 594 comes up for grabs).

Qualcomm has its own mobile-video system, called MediaFLO, and has bought spectrum in the USA on which to run the service. Giving network operators free spectrum with every MediaFLO server would certainly be an interesting strategy, and one which could convince many to invest in the technology. The company won't officially confirm that MediaFLO is what it has in mind, but a source within the firm suggests that's the plan.

One bidder struggling to conceal its intentions is WorldSpace. It operates a couple of satellites broadcasting radio around the world in the L-Band spectrum, and with a footprint that covers the UK. It's already bought the rights to the upper (12.5MHz wide) block in Switzerland, Germany ,and Italy, and is confident it'll grab it in the UK too.

Part of WorldSpace's confidence is based on the Maastricht 2002 Plan, which allocates that top block to satellite radio across Europe. Unfortunately for WorldSpace, the UK is not a signatory to that agreement, so not bound by it, though anyone operating in the top block will not be protected (legally) from interference coming from WorldSpace's broadcasts which cover most of the continent.

Whether the UK is ready to pay for satellite radio is also open to question. WorldSpace makes much of its lack of on-air advertising and the range of stations it offers, but with DAB already offering a range of BBC content (thus with no advertising) and failing so badly, it's hard to imagine users flocking to a system that requires line-of-sight to the sky, and a subscription to receive stations.

The 700MHz auction in the US was watched with interest in the hope of disruptive services being launched, and the results were greeted with disappointment when it became clear that little would change. In Europe, we're similarly hoping that the digital dividend will create new business models and services, and this L-Band auction might show the kind of thinking that will prevail at the end of 2008. ®

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