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Ofcom outlines plans for wider 4G coverage

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By Stewart Mitchell

Posted on 12 Jan 2012 at 11:43

Ofcom has laid out its latest plans for the 4G auction that should finally be held later this year.

The auction process – delayed amid accusations of industry infighting and regulator inertia - should pave the way for faster wireless data networks as mobile usage surges.

According to Ofcom, its main revisions following an earlier consultation address two key issues: coverage and competition.

When the first proposals were put forward last year, rural and business groups said the initial guidelines would leave too many areas without coverage.

The first option is to increase the obligation to 98% of the UK by population

With the Government counting 4G access as part of the overall effort to get high speed broadband to 90% of the population and at least 2Mbits/sec to everyone else, leaving remote areas out of 4G plans was seen as widening the digital divide.

Now Ofcom has proposed increasing the coverage expectations placed on successful bidders from 95% of the population to 98%, meaning operators would have to push networks further into rural areas and other “mobile notspots”.

“In the March 2011 consultation Ofcom proposed that a special condition should be attached to one of the 800MHz licences, obliging the holder to roll out a 4G network to 95% of the UK population,” the regulator said in a statement.

“In October, the Government announced plans to invest £150m to boost mobile coverage in those areas with poor or no mobile service. A significant part of this money is likely to be spent on building new mobile infrastructure in areas of the UK where there is little or no commercial incentive for operators to do so.”

Piggyback investment
Ofcom said it was considering two options to ensure operators made services as widely available as possible, including piggybacking on that £150m investment.

“The first option is to increase the obligation to 98% of the UK by population,” the regulator said.

“However, the second and potentially more effective option, is to require that one 800MHz operator provides 4G coverage that not only matches existing 2G coverage, but also extends into mobile ‘notspot’ areas of the UK where the £150m will provide infrastructure capable of supporting 4G coverage.”

Ofcom claimed the move had the potential to extend 4G mobile coverage even further than 98% of the UK by population and make it "more likely that mobile broadband services would be provided in locations where they could be most valued by consumers, rather than in those areas where it is easiest for a licensee to meet the obligation”.

Ofcom also said it would try to ensure at least four operators had access to enough spectrum to provide viable services, and announced plans to keep some spectrum back to make it available for new entrants to the market.

The regulator outlined plans that would see spectrum in the 2.6GHz band reserved for companies to deliver new services.

"Potential applications include local mobile networks for student campuses, hospitals or commercial offices, which operate on short-range frequencies serving a small area,” Ofcom said.

Stakeholders have 10 weeks to respond to the changed proposals.

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