Ofcom has launched a consultation into plans that would allow Vodafone and O2 to reuse 4G frequencies for 5G, a move that experts say will allow them to close the coverage gap on established 5G operators EE and Three and provide better services for businesses and consumers. The plans may face opposition from other mobile network operators which have made hefty investments in dedicated 5G spectrum.
If approved spectrum held by both operators in the 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands would be made technology-neutral, which frees it up to be used for more than just 4G, as is currently stipulated.
Ofcom cites increasing demand from businesses and consumers for ultrafast mobile broadband, explaining that this change would allow these operators to use the spectrum for that purpose.
Under existing licences, those spectrum bands are restricted to 4G technology, but analysts say it was always expected that newer services would make use of this spectrum as the technology evolved.
Will 5G spectrum changes for Vodafone and O2 be approved?
Ofcom says it has a policy goal to remove regulatory barriers stopping the deployment of the latest available technology, explaining in a statement that the aim with the Vodafone and O2 request is to ensure their licences are “as technology-neutral as possible”, while ensuring other users are protected from interference from those signals.
However, the move may not be popular with other operators. “If I was EE and Three, I would be looking at this very cynically and wondering why I’ve had to pay millions for the new spectrum if Ofcom goes ahead with this,’ said Tim Mercer, CEO of cloud technology service provider Vapour Cloud, adding that “O2 and particularly Vodafone – who paid the least for its 5G frequencies in April 2021 – will walk away with a big win, managing to get the biggest benefit for the smallest price. It’s almost as if they knew this was going to happen”.
Indeed, Vodafone paid just £176m for 5G spectrum in the auction which closed last year, compared to EE’s £475m and Three’s £280m. Telefonica, O2’s parent company, spent £448m.
Mercer said the change could be positive for domestic and business 5G users. “It will help consumers potentially get easier, quicker access to 5G services through existing infrastructure,” he says.
Opening 4G spectrum key to the 5G roll out
The change could “represent a key step in the roll out of 5G which is very much needed,” according to telecoms industry analyst Paolo Pescatore. “It provides plentiful benefits to all users and telcos,” he says. “The quicker this happens, the better for all in UK plc.”
“In theory, this should help accelerate the uptake of 5G,” Pescatore explains. “However, we should not underestimate the sheer work needed with the transition towards 5G and providing much-needed coverage in many unconnected areas. “For this reason, 4G will still play a crucial role in the short to medium term. Furthermore, this future-proofs the bands to be used for next-generation technology such as 6G and much more.”
As Tech Monitor reported earlier this year, wrangling over spectrum has slowed the roll out of both commercial and private 5G networks. Consumers in the UK have been slow to adopt the technology when compared to other parts of the world, with a survey by YouGov last year revealing that just 16% of Britons have a 5G-enabled phone.
The idea of reusing spectrum is not a new one, as the 900MHz frequencies being adapted for 5G were the original bands used for analogue mobile services in the UK four decades ago. Then, in 2011, the 900 and 1800 MHz licences were changed to allow for 4G.
Changes to 2.6GHz spectrum allowances
Ofcom is also suggesting other amendments to the O2 unpaired 2.6GHz licence which would remove restrictions on frequencies that sit adjacent to the Vodafone 2.6GHz spectrum.
It says this would give O2 the ability to use an extra 5MHz of the spectrum and increase capacity. This is an idea Vodafone is said to have signed off on, as it would require them to synchronise transmissions with O2.
Ofcom said in a statement: “Telefónica [parent company of O2] has requested that we remove a restriction on the 5 MHz block within its unpaired spectrum allocation adjacent to Vodafone’s unpaired allocation. Vodafone has contacted us to confirm its agreement with the request.
“This would allow Telefónica to use an unrestricted 20 MHz of spectrum compared with the 15 MHz currently available. To make this arrangement work, the two licensees need to synchronise transmissions and both of their licences will need to be varied.”
The watchdog says it is “minded to make similar changes available to the licences of other licensees in these bands, upon request”.
“Overall, we believe that consumers are likely to benefit from the proposed licence variations because these changes will enable licensees to provide innovative mobile services and to make a more efficient use of spectrum. Consumers may also benefit from these services providing faster download speeds and improved coverage,” Ofcom said in a statement.