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Ofcom decides it can't decide on spare spectrum

8MHz left fallow after 6 months of faff

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Following six months of consultation Ofcom has decided it can't decide what to do with 8MHz of sub-1GHz spectrum, so will do nothing until after the general election.

Not that the election is supposed to be the important factor - officially the regulator is waiting to see if the EU's boffins can get GSM-R (GSM for Railways) working with short range devices and RFID tags, but despite the much publicised scarcity of radio space it seems few people are interested in a pair of 4MHz channels even if they are in the right part of the spectrum.

The two slots starts at 827 and 917MHz, which should be prime spectrum with good range and in-building penetration. But 4MHz is quite narrow (3G requires slots 5MHz wide, though 4G is more flexible) and these particular slots are adjacent to existing operators. That means anyone deploying a national network would have to shell out for additional filters for the neighbours, at an estimated cost of £5.4m.

But it's not just the neighbours that lower the value of these particular slots - mobile network operators (whose willingness to pay high prices is what drives radio-spectrum valuations) like spectrum that's also available in other countries so they can reduce costs through economies of scale. That makes some chunks of radio extremely valuable, while other bits can't be given away.

Giving it away was one of the options considered by Ofcom in its consultation, published last August. Short Range Devices (SRDs) and RFID (Radio Frequency Identity) applications could fill the space, though the lack of international agreements would demand that such devices were UK-specific.

The August consultation presented two alternatives: selling the slots off to the highest bidder, and giving them away for short-range use. Only 21 people managed to respond to that consultation, and few of those responses contributed usefully to the debate, so Ofcom has decided to give it another six months to see what happens.

One thing that might happen is the completion of an EU project to see if radio spectrum can be used simultaneously for GSM-R and SRD/RFID applications, through the simple expedient of banning the latter from being used near railway lines.

The other thing that might happen is the auctioning-off of the Digital Dividend spectrum, which, combined with reallocations necessitated by the merger of T-Mobile and Orange, is likely to change the perceived value of UK radio spectrum radically.

Combine that with the fact that over the next six months we'll likely get a government which is avowedly anti-Ofcom, and you can understand the regulator's reluctance to make decisions: 8MHz of spectrum is small potatoes in a year that's going to see so much change. ®

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