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Digital Britain dithers over spectrum plans

Disses WiMAX, tries on caps, wobbles on universal service

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Digital Britain Lord Carter's report on Digital Britain has quite a lot to say on spectrum allocations, though there are still significant gaps to fill before we have a radio spectrum master plan.

Most of what's in Digital Britain echoes the proposals made by Kip Meek last month. This should come as no surprise, given that Mr. Meek was tasked by Lord Carter to come up with a plan, but there are significant differences. These include less-complicated caps, no commitment on a universal service obligation and a note that it would be loverly to have mobile phones working on the tube in time for the 2012 Olympics.

The final report, published earlier this week (pdf), also holds Ofcom's original proposal against the mobile network operators. The report makes it clear that if they don't accede to this plan then Lord Carter is prepared to fall back on Ofcom's strip-spectrum-off-O2-and-vodafone-and-auction-it-off idea, which has been condemned by just about everyone in the industry as unfair and probably unworkable.

What the report does recommend is a massive auction to be scheduled for next year: comprising the 800MHz digital dividend spectrum, along with the 2.6GHz band that has been clogged up in the courts for the last year or so. Those will be sold in paired frequencies, suited to FDD technologies such as 3G and LTE, but less well adapted for WiMAX, of which the report is pretty dismissive. WiMAX proponents will get the chance to bid for some TDD spectrum around 2.6GHz, but no-one is now expecting the technology to be used for anything more than fixed point-to-point connections.

When it comes to caps on spectrum ownership, the report recommends an absolute cap of 130MHz of spectrum below 3GHz to prevent monopolistic behaviour, expressed as 2x65MHz of paired spectrum, rather than the more complicated approach suggested by Mr. Meek.

Not so simple is Digital Britain's approach to the incumbent 900MHz holders: O2 and Vodafone. Kip Meek recommended that if O2 or Vodafone won any 800MHz spectrum at the mega-auction, they should be required to hand over the same amount of their 900MHz holding* - but Carter is more flexible and suggests that four-for-three might be a more suitable exchange, and leaves the matter open for future debate.

So the final report on Digital Britain leaves open the question of restrictions on 900MHz holders, postpones debate on universal service requirements and can't even bring itself to mandate the use of LTE beyond saying that WiMAX is pretty useless.

But most wishy washy of all is the commitment towards getting wireless broadband onto the underground:

"The London Olympics in 2012... seems a particularly good reason for the Mobile Network Operators to work with the Mayor of London to provide and fund solutions to take the initiative to improve the broadband mobile access for mobile customers travelling by Tube... If regulatory or other similar constraints turn out to be a barrier the Government is willing to address these."

Probably best not to hold your breath for 3G on the tube, then. ®

* LTE benefits from contiguous chunks of spectrum, so it's possible that O2 and/or Vodafone would benefit from abandoning 900MHz for contiguous blocks at 800MHz. It's pretty unlikely to happen, though.

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