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Ofcom plans new rural coverage obligations for 700MHz spectrum

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Ofcom has detailed plans to improve existing mobile networks in the UK with new coverage obligations and how it will assist the rollout of next generation 5G services with more spectrum and support.

In December 2014, all four major operators committed to invest a combined £5 billion to improve rural coverage as part of a legally-binding agreement to extend a basic voice and text service over 2G to 90 percent of the UK’s landmass by the end of 2017.

The agreement ended the threat of operators being forced to open up their infrastructure as part of a “national roaming” network.

Ofcom rural coverage

Separately, as per the terms of its 800MHz spectrum licence, O2 was required to deliver a 4G service to 98 percent of the UK population by the same deadline.

Ofcom has written to all four operators, confirming they have met these obligations, but it is now thinking of new requirements when it puts the 700MHz frequencies vacated by Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) services up for auction in late 2019.

This band has significant range and the regulator feels it is an “important opportunity” to boost rural mobile coverage. It is proposing that successful bidders would have to deliver “good quality indoor coverage” to 60 percent of the 200,000 premises it is predicted will lack such coverage at the time of the auction.

Another obligation would require an operator to deliver “good” data and voice services to 92 percent of the UK landmass, and up to 92 percent in England and Northern Ireland, 83 percent in Wales and 75 percent in Scotland.

Ofcom is in the process of a separate auction of 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz airwaves, with six confirmed bidders participating. These frequencies are earmarked for 5G services, and Ofcom says it plans to make more spectrum available in the future.

It has opened up a new ‘Innovation and Trial portal’ for firms wanting a licence for test spectrum. Ofcom is particularly excited by the possibilities afforded by the 26GHz Millimetre Wave (mmWave) band and said it would work with government and other regulators to smooth the path to 5G.

The UK has ambitions to become a leader in 5G, while the first commercial networks are expected in 2019. 5G will bring ultrafast gigabit speeds, low latency and increased capacity.

“We will continue to work with the UK Government and governments in the nations to ensure site access and planning are not a barrier to the deployment of 5G, and we will ensure there are a range of solutions available for 5G sites to connect to core telecoms networks (‘backhaul’),” it said.

“Finally, we will collaborate with other European regulators to ensure that net neutrality regulation is not a barrier to 5G evolution.

“We will act as a facilitator, working across different sectors to encourage them to work together, and with other countries to further understand the potential applications of 5G, and how they might work in practice in the UK.”

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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.