O2 auction challenge could delay UK 5G rollout

(Image credit: O2)

The spread of 5G in the UK could be further delayed by legal challenges to Ofcom’s planned sale of spectrum later this year.

All four mobile operators have launched 5G networks after winning airwaves in the first 5G auction two years ago. However a second auction of 200MHz worth of frequencies was due to be held this Spring but was delayed until the second half of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A combination of low-level and mid-level airwaves will be available for purchase, each providing different characteristics for operators’ 5G networks. The 700MHz band offers greater range and indoor propagation, while the 3.6-3.8GHz band have greater capacity but limited range.

O2 5G complaint

Ofcom is inviting bids for 80MHz worth of 700MHz and 120MHz of 3.6-2.8GHz. Each operator is subject to a spectrum cap of 37 per cent of the immediately usable frequencies in the UK today.

Potential bidders had until last week to issue submit any concerns that had not been previously raised during the consultation process. The FT is reporting that O2 has elected to do so, raising concerns about how spectrum will be allocated.

The auction will have two stages. The principal stage will see participants bid for separate lots of spectrum and assignment stage will determine specific frequencies. Operators will be able to negotiate between themselves so that their new spectrum is adjacent to existing frequencies. O2 wants spectrum to be harmonised in contiguous blocks to avoid this process.

The possession of contiguous spectrum is seen as a vital consideration for 5G as it allows operators to offer more reliable services and connections. Three has been vocal about its possession of 100MHz block of 3.4GHz airwaves.

Although O2’s concerns could be addressed in a further consultation period, if they are not, then the process could be delayed by up to 18 months, according to the FT.

“People and businesses need fast, reliable mobile services more than ever, so we want to auction these airwaves as soon as possible,” Ofcom told the newspaper. “We’re really disappointed that one operator has threatened to launch a legal dispute that could slow things down for mobile users and the economy.”

TechRadar Pro has approached both O2 and Ofcom for comment.

Challenges to spectrum auctions are common. The 2013 sale of 4G airwaves was perpetually delayed by legal objections, causing the UK to fall behind in the 4G race. Meanwhile, EE and Three failed in their opposition to a spectrum cap at the first 5G auction.

The UK has exceeded expectations with 5G but any further delays would jeopardise its position as a world leader. Some analysts believe that Covid-19 could cause some European operators to suspend their deployments due to economic slowdown, restrictions on the movements of engineers, and the redistribution of resources to activities that ensure service continuity for customers.

Via FT

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.