Ofcom delays UK 5G auction until March

Young woman using mobile phone
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The upcoming auction of 5G spectrum is set to be delayed once again due the coronavirus pandemic.

A total of 200MHz of spectrum is up for grabs, including 80MHz worth of long-range 700MHz frequencies freed up by Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT), and 120MHz worth of mid-band 3.6-3.8GHz airwaves.

Regulator Ofcom confirmed EE, O2, Three and Vodafone as qualified bidders earlier this month but warned another Covid-related delay was possible. The auction had been planned for Spring 2020 but this was pushed back to January due to the pandemic. Now it won’t take place until at least March.

Ofcom 5G spectrum

“Throughout our planning for the auction we have been closely monitoring the coronavirus situation,” it said. “Following a pause in the auction process, we are now planning for the principal stage of the auction (the start of bidding) to begin in March 2021.

“We will continue to monitor developments.”

The spectrum up for auction represents an 18% increase in the amount of bandwidth available to operators and is considered vital for the rollout of commercial 5G services. Prior to the pandemic, it was feared legal challenges could delay the process and jeopardise the potential benefits of the spectrum.

“We’re disappointed the auction will now be delayed although we understand the unique circumstances,” said a BT spokesperson. “The auction and subsequent release of spectrum remains central to the future rollout of mobile networks and 5G. The economy’s recovery from Covid-19 is dependent on resilient digital infrastructure and we urge Ofcom to resist any further requests for delays.”

Three on the other hand believes the auction should be delayed.

“We believe that the auction should be suspended until the UK is well out of lockdown, transmission rates have been drastically reduced and stakeholders have greater confidence that the auction can be completed safely and without disruption," a spokesperson said. 

"This is the only way to maintain the integrity of the auction process as we are  concerned that COVID-19 will make it very challenging for organisations with less resource like Three to participate without compromising the wellbeing of our employees and our ability to bid effectively.”

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.