Ofcom hopes coverage obligations and spectrum sharing will boost rural 4G

Ofcom has detailed plans for spectrum licence obligations and spectrum sharing in a bid to address the ongoing issue of poor mobile coverage in rural areas.

According to the regulator’s Connected Nations 2018 report, almost all properties can receive a good indoor 4G signal from at least one operator while 77 per cent are covered by all four major networks – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – up from 65 per cent last year.

However, while 83 per cent of urban premises receive what could be classified as “good” coverage, only 41 per cent of rural properties do, and in some areas there is no coverage at all.

Ofcom spectrum

Mobile coverage has improved across the UK this year, but too many people and businesses are still struggling for a signal. We’re particularly concerned about mobile reception in rural areas,” said Philip Marnick, Ofcom Spectrum Group Director.

“As we release new airwaves for mobile, we’re planning rules that would extend comprehensive good mobile coverage to places areas that are harder to reach haven’t had it.  That will help ensure that rural communities have the kind of mobile coverage that people expect in towns and cities, reducing the digital divide.”

Ofcom’s next spectrum auction will see 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz airwaves made available to mobile operators in time for Spring 2020. 700MHz spectrum has long range and high indoor penetration, while 3.6-3.8GHz offers high capacity for 5G.

If an operator wins a package of spectrum with obligations attached, they will have to extend “good” mobile coverage to at least 90 per cent of the UK within four years, improve coverage for at least 140,000 homes and offices their networks don’t already cover, and provide coverage from at least 500 new sites.

To reflect the investment required, Ofcom will discount the licences for spectrum carrying these rules by between £300 million and £400 million.

Separately, Ofcom is also investigating the feasibility of spectrum sharing, which would allow multiple users of the same frequencies. For example, if an operator had a licence for certain spectrum but wasn’t using it, a local mobile operator could take advantage.

Finally, the regulator has expressed its concern at the recent O2 outage and has proposed a series of measures to prevent a repeat incident. It will propose that operators and vendors undertake checks of their infrastructure and a code of best practice to reduce the amount of time it takes to connect customers following an outage.

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.