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Ofcom sets out next DECADE of spectrum policy: Use it or lose it

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Ofcom plans to spend the next 10 years looking for unused spectrum, flogging off what it can but focusing on utilisation like it should, and wants to know if there's anything missing.

The consultation on "Spectrum Management Strategy" is long, and has more reiteration than most documents emerging from Riverside House. It's also quite high level, but does ask some specific questions about the role of the regulator and how best to make use of what's available to us.

When it comes to radio spectrum, Ofcom's responsibility is to ensure the optimal exploitation of the bands available. Historically, it seemed that auctioning to the highest bidder was the easiest way to achieve that, with the happy side-effect of raising government revenue.

But with the most-utilised band (2.4GHz) being given away free, while companies squat on purchased bandwidth which they do not use, that argument is quickly losing favour and Ofcom is looking at the alternatives.

Primary amongst those is spectrum-sharing, initially using a geographical database of available bands. This particular alternative is being trialled in the UK (and deployed in the USA). Ofcom would like to dispose of the databases, but accepts they will be needed until a major breakthrough in sensing technology.

Such use needn't be entirely unlicensed, though that's the plan for the TV bands, but Ofcom wants to know if you agree that spectrum-sharing of all kinds should remain a priority.

White space and other interesting spots

The regulator also predicts an explosion in low-power devices, some using white space but others filling all sorts of radio niches. These devices are already propagating, and Ofcom wants to know if there's anything it should be doing about them beyond welcoming the additional utilisation.

That utilisation is largely possible thanks to improvements in radio transmitters and receivers, which have advanced significantly in the last few years, but Ofcom wants to know if it should take a more active role in driving development of new technologies to squeeze more signalling into the available frequencies.

Most of the questions are even less specific, but there's also a request for views about the 20MHz band, starting at 450MHz which is currently licensed out to private radio operators (taxi companies and the like). It's not recognised LTE band, but Ofcom reckons it could be, and argues that with such good propagation it would help make ubiquitous broadband practical.

The only other bands referenced in the consultation (PDF, longer than it looks) are those requested by the TETRA crowd. They're not named, but the question of whether the emergency services need their own frequency band for multimedia access is one which will need to be addressed in the next decade.

Planning a decade ahead is very hard; developments in radio are accelerating and regulating its use is becoming increasingly difficult. Ofcom's list of priorities show what it thinks will matter in 2023, but it will be fascinating to find out how accurate it is. ®

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