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No time to waste now 5G legal challenges are over

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It may have been Valentine’s Day but there was no love in the air for Three at the Court of Appeal this week.

Its final attempt to force Ofcom to impose a 30 percent cap on the amount of spectrum a single operator can hold, claiming it would boost competition and stop larger rivals like BT from hoarding airwaves.

Three’s position is understandable, given it is the UK’s smallest mobile operator, but large parts of the industry will greet its failure with relief.

5G mobile industry

Earlier in February, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) determined that Three’s ‘Make The Air Fair’ campaign, which saw giant billboards depicting Ofcom CEO Sharon White as a superhero and urged the public to ask for a spectrum cap, was “misleading”.

The campaign oversimplified what is a complex issue and threatened to unnecessarily derail the 5G (opens in new tab) process. Spectrum is only one element of 5G after all and if anything, more delays would harm consumers in the long term.

For its part, Three denied its actions had delayed the path to 5G and said it was happy that at least Ofcom had accepted the idea of a spectrum cap in principle, so the hope is that the conditions are right for the UK to fulfil its ambition of being a 5G leader.

The auction of 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz spectrum had already been delayed at Ofcom’s request because of the proposed merger between O2 and Three, which ironically would have resulted in the creation of the UK’s largest mobile operator.

While this could be interpreted as a sensible decision, further postponements are unfathomable to an industry keen to avoid a repeat of the 3G and 4G auctions. The crippling sums paid by operators for 3G licences resulted in a decade of underinvestment, while the 4G auction was delayed by legal squabbles.

Rather than lead the world in 4G, the UK was years late to the party and has only recently caught up.

If the same were to happen with 5G, the government and mobile industry’s ambition of becoming a pioneer in this nascent field would be in jeopardy.

Some operators will launch the first commercial 5G networks in 2019 – a year earlier than previously thought – meaning there is no time to waste.

We already have an early 5G standard and component and network equipment manufacturers are continuing with tests to ensure everything is ready. Device makers will be next and operators need to ensure the first bands of spectrum are there too.

Ofcom should be commended for its decision to press ahead with the spectrum auction regardless of the outcome of Three’s appeal. It argued that this was in the “public interest” and would adjust the terms of the auction depending on the outcome.

If anything, this means the UK is now on a par with its European equivalents. Germany is preparing fir its spectrum auction, while France’s 3.4-3.8GHz sale has also been subject to delay.

But the race to 5G is a global one, and there is no time to lose.

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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.