Carter's right-hand man lays out spectrum plan

4Mb/sec: The Meek shall interpret the worth

Kip Meek, right-hand man of communications minister Lord Carter, has taken a few steps back to see the bigger picture of spectrum use in the UK, after his master failed to get much support for the spectrum reallocation proposed in his Digital Britain draft.

Kip Meek's proposal (pdf) reckons that we could have 4Mb/sec wireless speeds nationwide by 2014, but only if we're prepared to put some onerous restrictions on what buyers can do with their spectrum, and if we're prepared to hold off on an auction until next year at the earliest.

Carter's draft, published in January, called for mobile network operators to negotiate a deal for the reallocation of spectrum before the end of April, or face a mandated solution. That deadline passed without incident, but now Kip Meek, in his role as Independent Spectrum Broker, has published his own recommendations, which are not only less draconian but also take a wider perspective on who owns UK spectrum.

The problem, as perceived by Carter, is that O2 and Vodafone have chunks of 900MHz spectrum in which they want to deploy 3G services, but other operators have complained that this would devalue the 2.1GHz spectrum they paid so much for. It would also give O2 and Vodafone an unfair advantage, while everyone else waits for the switch off of analogue TV before they can grab some 800MHz spectrum with similar range and building penetration.

So important is this issue that O2 (along with, until recently, T-Mobile) has been fighting a delaying action against the auction of 2.6GHz spectrum, on the grounds that until the rules on 900MHz are settled it's impossible to judge the value of the higher frequency.

Carter's threatened solution was to snip a couple of small chunks of 900MHz off O2 and Vodafone, and then auction them off to the competition. This move was greeted with derision by the other operators and failed even in its intended role as a stick with which to beat the operators into a negotiated solution.

Mr. Meek reckons much has changed in the last few years, and that his proposals could see the country blanketed in 4Mb/sec of wireless bandwidth by 2014. This would require more regulations on the licences, as well as combining the upcoming auctions and restricting bids from those lucky enough to already have some low-end spectrum.

Meek reckons that LTE - Long Term Evolution - is the future, and that to effectively deploy this next-generation GSM standard, operators will want both low and high frequency bands. High frequency to accommodate lots of users in cities, and low frequency with enough range to connect up rural areas.

That means ensuring all the players have a spectrum at 900MHz, or 800MHz (the latter being available once analogue TV is switched off), as well as some around 2.1GHz (used for 3G currently) or 2.6GHz, the latter available for auction once the remaining legal challenge from O2 is addressed. LTE can provide outstanding amounts of bandwidth, but only by spreading itself out, so operators will want to have contiguous chunks of spectrum into which they can slot dozens of users, or one user who's prepared to pay for 300Mb/sec of data.

Existing allocations are all based on GSM 2G or 3G technology, so are sized to meet the needs of those technologies. Indeed, Mr. Meek suggests there may be an advantage in preventing Vodafone and O2 from deploying 3G in 900MHz as it would break up the continuity necessary for LTE to make maximum use of it.

Firstly, the report recommends auctioning off a chunk of 2.6GHz for WiMAX. That spectrum is available now and should be in private hands by the end of 2009. The owner won't be required to deploy WiMAX, or anything at all, but the spectrum is in one lump which suits the Time Division Duplexed nature of the current WiMAX standard.

Next up is a massive auction of the 800MHz Digital Dividend spectrum, combined with the 2.6GHz paired spectrum suited to LTE deployments. All of the spectrum sold at this auction would be paired - two bands of the same size but not adjacent - which suits LTE's Frequency Division Duplex nature.

Combining the two auctions will enable all the networks to grab what they need, or for a new entrant to grab a range of spectrum. Vodafone and O2 won't be allowed to buy any 800MHz spectrum unless they hand over a corresponding quantity in the 900MHz band. This makes it unlikely they'd bother to bid. Everyone would also face a spectrum-holding cap.

Vodafone and O2 might also be prevented from deploying 3G at 900MHz until 800MHz spectrum is in private hands. Not only that, but Mr. Meek would like to see a pair of 10MHz bands in 800MHz sold off with a Universal Service requirement, forcing the owner to deploy a nationwide network with a required minimum speed. This would obviously reduce the value of that band, but could meet the government's 2Mb/sec-for-all aspirations.

The details of the speed, the size of the cap, and the timing of the auction(s) are all outside the scope of the report, which is no more than a well-argued proposal at the moment.

The use of greater regulation to force coverage won’t go down well with Ofcom, who would like to see the free market taking care of that kind of thing, and Meek admits that his whole proposal is based on there being five operators in the UK. Any consolidation would change the picture radically.

But it's a much better idea than Carter's first draft managed, and it will be a while before the operators have crawled over the details to understand how exactly it will affect them and if it deserves their support.

The switch off of analogue TV is continuing apace, and as a country we need to decide what we want to do with the newly-available spectrum. This report is one more talking point on the road to what is probably the most important decision the UK has ever taken with respect to radio communications. ®

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