Three UK Seeks to Harness 3.9GHz for Faster 5G Wireless Broadband

Mobile operator Three UK (Hutchinson 3G) has asked Ofcom to make a useful technical change to its existing licence for the 3.9GHz (3925 – 4009MHz) spectrum band, which is held by sibling UK Broadband Ltd. The change, if approved, would enable them to use this with 5G technology to boost their Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) packages.

Just to recap. Three UK currently operates both a traditional mobile network – primarily using 4G and 5G technologies – and a range of FWA style home broadband products. Prior to that, the 3.9GHz band used to help underpin fixed wireless broadband ISP Relish in London, before that provider was gobbled up for £250m as part of H3G’s move to acquire UK Broadband Ltd. in 2017 (here).

The 3.9GHz licence itself sits within the 3.8–4.2 GHz band. Ofcom’s established policy for the 3.8–4.2GHz band is for it to be accessed on a “shared and first-come-first-served basis“, which means that different users with localised spectrum needs can geographically share spectrum with each other by requesting spectrum where and when they need it. When users no longer require spectrum at a particular location, they can relinquish their rights to use the spectrum so that it becomes available for others, thus enabling more efficient use.

The band in question was initially shared between H3G, satellite earth stations and point-to-point fixed links. Satellite earth station and fixed link use of the band has been relatively stable over recent years and, in 2019, Ofcom opened the band to new users under the Shared Access Framework, with the aim of facilitating deployment of local networks in different sectors and promoting innovation (there are around 500 live Shared Access licences in 3.8–4.2GHz).

Ofcom’s new consultation notes that Three UK / H3G has now requested a “minor technical changes” to the licence in order to enable it to “use 5G technology to improve and expand its 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) offering.”

What Ofcom are proposing – in brief

We are proposing to vary the technical terms in the 3.9 GHz licence in line with H3G’s request to support 5G technology. We believe this can bring additional benefits to consumers without creating harmful interference for other spectrum users. It is also consistent with the approach we have taken in other licences.

In reviewing H3G’s request, we also identified an opportunity to update the terms of access to 3.9 GHz spectrum to better align with our policy objectives for the 3.8–4.2 GHz band, in which the 3.9 GHz licence sits.

Our proposals are:

• To clarify how H3G can reserve spectrum under its 3.9 GHz licence, consistent with the first-come-first-served, shared framework for all users in the 3.8–4.2 GHz band. Specifically, we are proposing to introduce a requirement for H3G to use the spectrum ‘assignments’ that it requests (a ‘use clause’). This is similar to the requirement already in place for Shared Access users in the band. We will phase in this requirement over 5 years.

• To change the technical assumptions used for coordinating H3G with Shared Access users. These changes will reduce the area sterilised by each of H3G’s assignments.

The regulator is not currently proposing to change the level or structure of fees for the 3.9GHz licence at present, but they may review this in the future. The consultation itself will run until 15th July 2024, and, barring any major disputes from rival network operators, they plan to publish their final decision (approval) in Q4 2024.

In addition, it’s noted that H3G currently has around 26,000 assignments (at nearly 9,000 locations across the UK) in the 3.9 GHz spectrum. “These assignments are currently not in use and prevent other users from accessing this spectrum,” said Ofcom.

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