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Ofcom needs you... to carve up 37GHz of spectrum

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Ofcom has launched a public consultation on the management of 37GHz of radio spectrum, looking for better ways to manage licensing of fixed wireless links.

The 37GHz runs though 19 blocks from 1.4GHz up to 86GHz, and is currently licensed though a mix of Ofcom management, light licensing (where licensees have to sort out conflicts), exempt bands which are free to use, and privately held bands which were auctioned off. Ofcom reckons that mix is getting increasingly inefficient, and wants feedback on how things might be improved.

The current system is becoming a bit of a mess. Ofcom is responsible for licensing about 12GHz, and a further 12GHz (including your correspondent's own internet connectivity) is lightly managed, which means one has to pay for a licence – but it comes with no guarantees of exclusivity.

7GHz is free to use, but most of that is right at the top of the dial where it's hard to buy cheap kit. Another 6GHz is sub-licensed by commercial entities who bought it at auction, leaving a slither which is managed by an outsourcing company.

Just for comparison, the UK-wide 3G network, including all four network operators, is squeezed into 110MHz of spectrum, so this consultation debates the future of chunks that are comparatively massive.

Not that all of them are very valuable. The value of radio spectrum is most-closely related to the cost of the equipment capable of using it - 3G mobile phones operating at 2.1GHz are cheap as chips, so the 2.1GHz band is expensive, whereas kit capable of doing anything at 60GHz is very expensive, so the spectrum is given away free.

The vast majority of the UK's 40,000 or so fixed links are used for mobile backhaul, and an Ofcom-funded study (PDF, long, but lots of maps and charts) reports that number is declining as network operators consolidate connections and turn to copper and/or fibre connections. But despite that, the demand for spectrum is likely to increase – the PMSE crowd are about to lose some of their wireless camera bands, and local authorities keep deploying microwave to connect up their CCTV networks, so they'll be no excess of spectrum any time soon.

Ofcom wants to know if anyone has strong views on how this new landscape should be managed, but would like to make licences more reflective of their value. The regulator is even suggesting differential pricing based on the direction of the radio signal (North-South is always more popular than East-West), or auctioning off the bands to the highest bidder to licence as they see fit.

Right now around 90 per cent of the fixed-link licences are held by just eight companies, while the other 10 per cent are split between more than 300 holders. Ofcom is tired of managing the allocations and in the consultation (PDF, really tough going) the regulator suggests that block licences for the eight might be easier to manage, but is open to just about any suggestion of ways in which the management can be made easier. ®

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