Rivals claim Three's spectrum variation will hand it 5G advantage

Ofcom has approved a request by Three and its UK Broadband subsidiary to change its licence for 3.6GHz spectrum in a move that competitors claim will result in an unfair advantage in the race to develop and rollout 5G services.

UK Broadband, which offers Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) broadband services under the Relish brand, currently has 168MHz worth of spectrum in two separate 84MHz blocks.

It asked Ofcom to move one of these blocks down by 5MHz on the frequency range in exchange for giving up 4MHz of this total spectrum. The move gives Three and UK Broadband access to 100MHz worth of continuous spectrum.

Three 5G variation

Ofcom said it approved the application because it fulfils one of its ambitions of offering contagious spectrum that can be used by all operators in the forthcoming auction of 3.6GHz-3.8GHz spectrum.

The decision is a huge boost for Three, which hopes that its considerable mid-range spectrum holdings acquired through the acquisition of UK Broadband and the 3.4GHz auction will allow it to become the market leader in 5G services.

However, Three’s rivals have complained that Ofcom has only considered one option in what is a complex situation. Some believe Three has been handed an unfair advantage.

“Granting this variation now would provide Three with every opportunity and incentive to delay [the 3.6GHz auction] auction to its competitive advantage, and would effectively remove any possibility of a replan of the band to yield contiguous blocks for all mobile operators,” argued Vodafone. 

“As such, granting the variation fails the hurdles of promoting competition, and, on a wider basis, of achieving spectrum efficiency.”

“The proposed licence variation would convey significant commercial advantage to Three/UKB in terms of improved network costs and service offerings that will arise from having a contiguous 100 MHz spectrum assignment in this pioneer band for 5G, with significantly increased power compared to the existing 3.6 GHz licence condition,” added BT-EE.

“The impact on competition of the change in frequencies and the increased power needs to be fully assessed against the capability of other MNOs and how that capability may change after the next auction.”

The proposal to consolidate UKB holdings in isolation from a broader realignment of the entire 3.4-3.8 GHz band is unacceptable,” said O2.

EE, Three and Vodafone have all confirmed plans to launch 5G in 2019, and all operators are conducting 5G tests.

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.