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UK government looks for 500MHz spectrum

If the Americans can do it, then so can we

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The Department for Business Innovation and Skills reckons there's 500MHz of spectrum that can be sold off to bring faster wireless to the masses, but finding it might prove tricky.

The promise comes as part of Britain's Superfast Broadband Future, which iterates a government target to find an additional 500MHz of spectrum, below 5GHz, which can be released as part of a multi-technology approach to connecting up the entire country.

But PolicyTracker's Michael Newlands has been hunting around and can't seem to find out where all this spectrum is going to come from.

He started with Ofcom, the UK regulator with responsibility for radio spectrum, who ducked the issue neatly, saying: "With it being a government issue, it’s for them to provide the detail". When the question was put to the department that produced the document, PolicyTracker was told that it was "under review", but that there would be little trouble as "the public sector has a lot of spectrum".

The document itself (pdf) provides little guidance, only suggesting that the Ministry of Defence has a a load of frequencies going spare – but the MoD's plans have been on hold while it deals with the various wars in which it is embroiled, and a rep told PolicyTracker that nothing would come to market until 2013.

The problem with MoD spectrum is that it's very rarely solely used by the MoD... Great swathes of frequency are marked as belonging to the MoD, which tolerates a multitude of other users on the condition that they suffer the consequences if the army decides to start broadcasting. Once the frequencies are in private hands, the new owners are unlikely to be so forgiving.

PolicyTracker points out that with the UK mega-auction – 250MHz of spectrum split between 800MHz (digital dividend) and 2.6Ghz – not happening until 2013 we're not going start deploying LTE (4G) wireless until 2014, which isn't going to get us the best broadband in Europe by 2015 despite the government plans – Germany starts rolling out LTE next week.

There's another 56Mhz of ex-analogue TV spectrum around 400MHz, which is also going to be up for grabs, but all those blocks are supposed to be in addition to the new 500MHz which is apparently going to come from the public sector users.

So why the sudden decision to find another 500MHz of spectrum by 2020? Could it be in any way related to the FCC's plan to find exactly the same quantity of spectrum, over exactly the same time period?

We're used to blindly following an American lead in many things, but until recently the FCC has been following Ofcom's policies in many things. If we start following them, surely we'll all just end up going in circles. ®

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