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Ofcom flogs ex-military 4G spectrum, but ONLY the iPhone 5 can use it

Carriers cheer choice, customers cry in confusion

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A fresh round of 4G spectrum auctions are in the offing as Ofcom proposes selling off surplus military frequencies at 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz, despite the fact that only the iPhone 5 can make any use of it.

Another 190MHz of 4G spectrum will be up for grabs next year after being discarded by the military and heading for the auction block once Ofcom has polled opinions on how to parcel it up.

The bandwidth now available is about two-thirds of that sold off last year, and without a plum low-frequency band, as was available back then.

Both bands in the latest auction are recognised for LTE use and will provide more opportunities for network operators – and more confusion for customers who are already struggling to understand which phones work on which 4G networks in which locations.

Ofcom's consultation (PDF, surprisingly short) argues that the time for FDD - Frequency Divisioned Duplex, splitting bands into separate channels for "send" and "receive" is past - and that TDD - Time Divisioned Duplex, shouting "over" to change signal direction - is the way of the future. Europe has, apparently, already decided that TDD is right for the 2.3GHz band and is on the verge of agreeing the same thing at 3.4GHz.

FDD makes no sense in the asymmetrical world of internet use. Reserving the same quantity of bandwidth for sending and receiving, as the UK's current 4G networks do, means wasting half of it and is nothing more than a throwback to wired telephony systems. FDD is simple to implement and use, but TDD makes more efficient use of the radio spectrum – and that (as the regulator likes to remind us) is Ofcom's prime directive.

The 40MHz block starting at 2350MHz is effectively empty, but the 150MHz at 3410MHz has one resident in the form of UK Broadband - the UK's first LTE deployment, which is still providing niche connectivity in Swindon, Reading and Southwark. UK Broadband owns two 20MHz bands, separated and poorly located, so Ofcom proposes shuffling them together into a single block at the top of the dial – but first needs to check if anyone minds. UK Broadband is unlikely to object, as aggregating will give them greater flexibility, but the rules demand a consultation on the subject.

Ofcom wants to know if anyone is likely to bid for the bands, and what they're going to want to do with them. The regulator notes that the 2.3GHz band is used by mobile operators in Asia, but the handsets available in that market don't support the European LTE bands, with the notable exception of iPhone 5 variants.

Network operators have been screaming for more spectrum for years, producing charts showing unquenchable demand for wireless access and predicting economic collapse unless the "spectrum crunch" is addressed. Here we have a regulator addressing just that, with a serious quantity of new radio spectrum, providing an opportunity to see if the operators are prepared to bet their own money on those predictions. ®

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