Spectrum is a highly valued yet finite commodity that’s critical to the delivery of connected services. This week, with a new mobile spectrum auction on the horizon in the UK, Ofcom has imposed a cap on the amount that any mobile network can control. Ofcom believes that any one company owning too much spectrum would be anticompetitive, and bad for consumers as it would restrict consumer choice.
The decision – and subsequent reaction of the operators to the news (Three’s chief executive threatened legal action after describing the move as a “kick in the teeth”) – demonstrates just how important spectrum is to telecom providers seeking to deliver current and future generations of connectivity services, 4G, 5G and beyond. And it’s not just about delivering faster connectivity, it’s about delivering it to an ever-increasing volume of smart devices. Right now, many of those devices are consumer products, but in the future they’ll include smart city infrastructure, driverless cars and countless other innovations enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT).
But is a spectrum cap the best way to protect such a valuable resource? It’s interesting that the announcement of the cap coincided with news from the US that Microsoft is planning on using TV white space (TVWS) spectrum to to help bridge the digital divide and deliver broadband connectivity to rural areas starting in 12 states, which until now haven’t been able to access a high-speed internet service, with a wider rollout planned over the next five years. White space is the name given to unused broadcasting frequencies in the wireless spectrum. Unlike the UK’s forthcoming mobile auction, Microsoft has not had to buy TV white space spectrum to deliver this service. It instead will be sharing it dynamically, serving the people and devices that need it based on considerations such as their specific location.
It’s a similar project to ones we’ve been heavily involved with in remote areas of Scotland and Wales, which use white space spectrum that was freed up by the switchover to digital TV. Again, these work by dynamically allocating spectrum against the specific needs of users in real-time. The impact is considerable there are still 1.4 million homes and offices across the UK which are unable to sign up for broadband speeds over 10 Mbit/s and TV white space is uniquely well suited to reaching some of these particularly hard to reach areas. The service we help to deliver on the Isle of Arran alongside Broadway Partners, means that residents can for the first time reliably use the internet to run businesses, stay in touch with family members across the globe and enjoy the benefits of modern online services. It’s cost effective too, with similar pricing to standard broadband services across the UK
To use an analogy, dynamic spectrum management is akin to air traffic control, allowing the airline industry to share routes and maximise the number of planes in the sky, without any collisions or mix-ups – effectively squeezing more capacity into a finite resource. We think this is the optimal way to allocate spectrum, and far preferable to exclusive use – which is currently the preferred model of regulators like Ofcom. With dynamic spectrum management, not only would we not need the costly auction process, but we would avoid any one entity owning too much of it.
Microsoft’s project in the US, as well as the TVWS commercial operations and trials we’re involved in across the UK, and we are also working with Microsoft to deploy TVWS further a field too, show just what can be achieved when spectrum is shared dynamically. With global internet traffic expected to triple over the next five years, demand for spectrum is going to explode. As we get closer to the limits of wireless spectrum capacity, adopting new models like dynamic spectrum management will become critical if we’re to continue delivering new and innovative connected services in the years ahead.
You can read more about dynamic spectrum management here.