Ofcom UK Updates 5G Mobile Auction Design for 26GHz and 40GHz

The UK telecoms and media regulator, Ofcom, has today issued several updates to their planned auction design for releasing a large chunk of millimetre wave (mmW) radio spectrum frequency in the 26GHz and 40GHz bands, which will be used by mobile operators to deliver faster 5G (mobile broadband) services – mostly in urban areas.

The major mobile operators (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three UK) already have access to several 5G bands between 700MHz and 3.8GHz. Such frequency reflects the same sort of mid-band radio spectrum that mobile operators have been harnessing since the advent of the first 3G and 4G data networks many years ago.

NOTE: The regulator aims to make 6.25GHz of spectrum frequency available across the 26GHz and 40GHz bands.

The move to auction off the two higher frequencies of 26GHz and 40GHz is designed to complement existing bands by providing mobile operators with lots of additional spectrum frequency, which means more data capacity to potentially support extremely fast speeds (e.g. multi-Gigabit performance). But mmW bands deliver extremely weak signals, which means they’re best for serving busy areas (e.g. city shopping malls, airports, events etc.) and fixed wireless broadband (FWA) links.

Ofcom set out the details for the related auction process at the end of 2023 (here), which will award several 15-year, fixed term citywide licences (“high density areas”) to use the “new” mmWave bands in 68 major towns and cities across the UK, as well as some localised licences for “low density areas” within those cities via their Shared Access licensing framework.

In the latest update, the regulator has also made a final decision on three outstanding issues in the 26GHz and 40GHz auction process.

Ofcom’s Updates to the Auction Process

1. The auction will NOT include, during the final assignment stage, a negotiation period which would normally give winners of spectrum in a band an opportunity to agree that their respective allocations of spectrum will be adjacent (mostly due to the unknowns around what cost savings, spectrum sharing and other benefits may arise for these bands).

2. Ofcom has decided to adopt the assignment stage rules initially proposed in the March 2023 Statement and Consultation (including the clarifications provided in November 2023).

3. Ofcom will not include rules governing the location of any unsold spectrum in the 40 GHz band in the assignment stage of the auction, other than to require that any unsold 40GHz lots are treated as a single, contiguous block.

4. The regulator also added that they were “minded to increase the initial deposit” that applicants will be required to submit from £100,000 to £1m, which they said is intended to “deter frivolous applications and mitigate the risk of disruption to the auction process“. But stakeholders will have a further opportunity to comment on such amounts when Ofcom consult on the Auction Regulations.

The regulator is today also consulting on the Statutory Instruments that are necessary to run the auction (here). “These enable us to limit the number of licences and allow bidders to trade licences once issued. We invite comments on the proposed Statutory Instruments by 28th May 2024,” said Ofcom.

Finally, Ofcom have also confirmed a modification to the grant of recognised spectrum access that protects the radio astronomy site in Cambridge, while enabling other users to use this spectrum; and they have clarified how they will coordinate auction winners with incumbent fixed links, for the short period during which they will both have access to the spectrum.

In the past, the years leading up to a new mobile spectrum auction have often been ugly affairs, which tend to involve a lot of squabbling between mobile operators, legal challenges and significant delays. But the mmW bands are new territory and the operators are likely to find harnessing them more of a challenge, which may arguably make them less competitively contentious.

At the same time, Ofcom won’t be proceeding with this auction until AFTER the UK’s competition watchdog (CMA) has decided on the proposed merger between Vodafone and Three UK (here and here), which is sensible as that deal may result in some changes to competitive spectrum holdings (i.e. Three UK and Vodafone may be required to divest some of their spectrum to avoid gaining an unfair competitive advantage).

The CMA’s final decision on the proposed merger between Three UK and Vodafone isn’t expected until later in 2024, and it may then take a bit longer before Ofcom can actually begin the auction process itself (possibly pushing this into 2025), assuming there are no legal squabbles along the way (a risky assumption, given the history of such auctions).

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