U.K. regulators recently wrapped up the first portion of its March 5G spectrum auction, with BT’s EE coming away with the most low-band 700 MHz spectrum.
While many operators have eyes on mid-band spectrum for 5G, EE opted for both. It purchased spectrum in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band at auction, along with low-band 700 MHz that includes paired 2x10 MHz and supplementary downlink.
Analysis from Tutela says the low-band holdings can help EE keep its leading network status and bolster the overtaxed 800 MHz band currently used for 4G LTE particularly in rural areas.
According to Tutela, performance in areas where EE used 800 MHz for more than 50% of LTE traffic declined up to 41.9% from its best during peak usage hours or congestion. That compares to 17.4% drop from peak performance in areas that used 800 MHz to carry less than half of the traffic at high usage hours.
EE also went into the U.K. spectrum auction with limited low-band holdings (10 MHz) compared to competitors like Vodafone and Telefonica’s O2. Those operators have holdings in the 800 MHz and 900 MHz bands.
“By acquiring 30 MHz of low-band downlink capacity — more than all the other operators combined — EE has shown that it believes low-band spectrum can provide sufficient network capacity for rural areas long-term,” wrote Tutela in its report.
The additional supplementary 20 MHz downlink went for a cheaper price at auction, but Tutela noted that EE will now have more low-band downlink (35 MHz) than Vodafone (roughly 27 MHz) – even if it still has less uplink.
By purchasing a large portion of the low-band spectrum that UK regulator Ofcom made available for 5G, the testing firm says its likely EE hopes to use the frequencies as more than a 5G coverage layer and avoid building out numerous new sites for rural densification.
In its report, Tutela wrote, “at worst, EE has addressed an existing low-band capacity issue; at best, it’s laid the foundation for a less capital-intensive 5G buildout in the near future. Either outcome justifies EE’s spend in this auction as it works to provide a consistent and reliable mobile experience to its subscribers.”
EE spent the most at the March auction, spending £452 million ($628 million) in total for low and mid-band holdings. But spectrum prices were lower than some anticipated, like New Street Research which expected EE to spend £800 million.
In the U.S.T-Mobile has widely deployed low-band 600 MHz following its strategy for a low-band 5G coverage layer. While operators Verizon and AT&T have leaned on their own low- or lower-midband spectrum currently used for 4G LTE with the help of dynamic spectrum sharing technology in some locations for broader 5G coverage.
T-Mobile has had a head start on mid-band with 2.5 GHz deployments. But Verizon and AT&T are preparing for their own mid-band 5G launches, potentially later this year, with newly won C-band spectrum.