Ofcom spectrum auction: All networks bag essential spectrum to improve 5G rollout [Updated]

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The initial bidding stage for the Ofcom spectrum auction has taken place, and all networks have gained much-needed capacity for their respective 5G network rollout strategies.

What’s more, with the much-delayed auction process having happened some considerable time after intended, some networks have been planning well ahead of time and will be in a position to deploy their newly acquired spectrum almost immediately.

But, before we get carried away and start checking our phones for 5G coverage where it didn’t exist yesterday, there’s still more work to be done, as operators will now work together on how to best arrange the spectrum that has been ‘won’.

It’s not clear exactly how long this will take, but I am sure everyone will be keen to get this process completed as quickly as possible.

You can see the allocation of spectrum in the table below, which shows that EE, Three and O2 have all secured low-frequency spectrum that will enable a very rapid and significant rollout of 5G, given its ability to cover larger areas.

However, the bandwidth will limit overall speeds in comparison to the higher-frequency spectrum that networks currently have, or have won in this round.

Networks will be able to use technologies like DSS (Dynamic Spectrum Sharing) to re-use existing 4G spectrum for 5G, and could also – in theory – deploy 700MHz for 4G if they can see a business case.

What this could mean is that 4G and 5G could be offered on 700MHz, 800MHz, 900MHz and other frequencies – and be aggregated for faster overall data speeds and more resilience. Combined with the 3.5GHz and now 3.6GHz spectrum, we’re one step closer to 1Gbps speeds to becoming more commonplace than a (literal) handful of locations.

A sidenote is that your handset will need to support 5G carrier aggregation, as well as Dynamic Spectrum Sharing, and currently 5G chipsets in phones are limited to just two carriers, compared to multiple carriers for 4G (which is why, in some cases, 4G can offer speeds close to that of 5G in some locations).

Ofcom is no longer requiring spectrum to be used in any particular way, but 5G will be the logical standard to favour for the improved spectral efficiency.

Once 5G spectrum is up to a sufficient level for all operators, expect to see the switching on of 5G SA (Standalone), which will do away with the current mix of 4G and 5G (NSA – Non Standalone) and allow for lower latency connections.

How can I use this spectrum?

If you already have a 5G phone then you’re all set, as long as it wasn’t one of the first-generation 5G handsets released in 2019 (using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset – including models like the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G and Oppo Reno 5G) which was limited to just one band.

Chances are, any 5G early adopter will have changed their phone before 700MHz goes live anyway, and anything released since 2020 is good to go!

In 2021, a great deal of handsets will offer 5G as standard in the mid-range, having already become standard on all flagships. By the end of the year, it’s likely even low-end models will start to ship with 5G as standard, and already at the end of 2020 we have had budget models from the likes of Realme and Xiaomi that are also ready to go.

Spectrum Allocation

What the networks said…

“This auction will boost our 5G network capacity. It means we will have the spectrum we need to further the roll-out of 5G to our customers, bringing high-speed connectivity and opening up new opportunities for products and services.

“We have been successful in the 3.6GHz band and have avoided expenditure on low-band spectrum, where it is our strategy to re-farm over time our significant 900MHz holdings to carry 5G traffic.”

Ahmed Essam, Chief Executive Officer, Vodafone UK

“We are delighted to have won two 10MHz blocks of low frequency spectrum at the auction. This triples the amount of low frequency spectrum we own and will have a transformative effect on our customers’ experience indoors and in rural areas. Coupled with our existing low frequency spectrum and the UK’s largest 5G spectrum holding, we are in a fantastic position to deliver a great network experience for our customers now and in the future.”

Robert Finnegan, Chief Executive Officer, Three UK

Press Release

Ofcom spectrum auction: principal stage results

Ofcom has announced the outcome of the principal stage of its auction to release more airwaves to improve mobile services and support 5G.

A total of 200 MHz of spectrum was available to bid for in the auction, split across two bands:

  • 80 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band. These airwaves consist of 2×30 MHz of paired frequency spectrum, and 20 MHz of supplementary downlink spectrum. The 700 MHz airwaves are ideal for providing wide area coverage – including in the countryside.
  • 120 MHz of spectrum in 3.6-3.8 GHz band. These important airwaves are part of the primary band for 5G and capable of boosting mobile data capacity, carrying lots of data-hungry connections.

Four companies – EE Limited, Hutchison 3G UK Limited, Telefónica UK Limited and Vodafone Limited – took part in the principal stage of the auction, which involved them bidding for airwaves in 34 ‘lots’ to determine how much of the available spectrum they each secured. Principal stage bidding has now ended and Ofcom has published the results.

Results of the principal stage

  • EE Limited has won 2×10 MHz of paired frequency spectrum in the 700 MHz band at a cost of £280,000,000; 20 MHz of supplementary downlink spectrum in the 700 MHz band at a cost of £4,000,000; and 40 MHz in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band at a cost of £168,000,000.
  • Hutchison 3G UK Limited has won 2×10 MHz of paired frequency spectrum in the 700 MHz band at a cost of £280,000,000.
  • Telefónica UK Limited has won 2×10 MHz of paired frequency spectrum in the 700 MHz band at a cost of £280,000,000; and 40 MHz in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band at a cost of £168,000,000.
  • Vodafone Limited has won 40 MHz in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band at a cost of £176,400,000.

The total revenue raised from the principal stage is £1,356,400,000 with all money to be paid to HM Treasury.

Next steps

The auction will now move to the ‘assignment’ stage. This process involves a single bidding round in which the companies can bid for the frequency positions they prefer for the airwaves they have secured in the principal stage.

After submitting their assignment stage bids in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band, bidders will then have the opportunity to negotiate the frequency positions among themselves – if they want to join together the airwaves they have secured with spectrum they already hold in the wider 3.4-3.8 GHz band. This will be subject to whether the companies wish to enter the negotiation period. If they do, we will publish the dates for the negotiation period.

The final results of the auction – including the total amounts paid, the specific frequencies secured for each bidder, and the outcome of any agreements reached in the negotiation period – will be published once all stages are complete.

Philip Marnick, Group Director, Spectrum at Ofcom: “With bidding in the principal stage concluded, we now move to the next stage of the auction where the operators will have an opportunity to negotiate the position of their spectrum holdings in the wider band. This is an important step forward in bringing better mobile services to people – wherever they live, work and travel. These airwaves will help improve coverage for the mobile services people use today, as well as supporting the UK’s position as a world leader in 5G.”

UPDATE – April 27th 2021: EE has enabled a site with 700MHz just two minutes after it got its license!

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