U.K. regulators set 5G spectrum auction for March

London
The U.K.'s upcoming spectrum auction offers licenses in the 700 MHz and 3.6-3.8 GHz bands. (Getty Images)

U.K telecom regulator Ofcom on Monday said it now plans to start an auction for 5G spectrum in March 2021 as it continues to closely monitor the coronavirus situation.

That’s later than what Ofcom announced in August, when it planned for bidding to begin early this year in January. The new date follows a pause in the auction process and Ofcom said it “will continue to monitor developments.”

The four biggest U.K. mobile operators BT/EE, Hutchinson 3G UK, Telefónica UK (O2), and Vodafone are slated to participate, vying for spectrum in the 700 MHz and 3.6-3.8 GHz bands. The auction offers a total of 200-megahertz (80-megahertz of 700 MHz and 120-megahertz of 3.6-3.8 GHz). According to Ofcom, that represent an approximately 22% increase in the amount of spectrum currently available in the U.K. for mobile use.

Specifically, there will be six 2x5 MHz blocks (60 MHz total) in the 700 MHz band available, as well as four blocks of 5 MHz in downlink-only spectrum. In the 3.6-3.8 GHz band, the auction includes 24 lots of 5 MHz.

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Ofcom initially proposed tying certain coverage obligations, including increases in rural areas, in exchange for bidders winning discounted spectrum at the auction. Instead, operators developed a Shared Rural Network plan, which led to the removal of auction coverage requirements.  

The regulatory body also placed 37% cap on overall spectrum holdings, meaning limits on the amount certain operators can acquire at the auction.

For BT that limit is 120 MHz, for H3G its 185 MHz, and Vodafone can obtain 190 MHz. Telefónica’s O2 won’t be restricted by the cap because of its current spectrum position.

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All four operators already launched initial 5G service in the U.K. and Ofcom says releasing the 3.6-3.8 GHz airwaves will help increase the capacity and quality of mobile services.

Separately, on Monday Vodafone announced Virgin Media mobile customers now also have access to 5G across 100 U.K. locations, riding on Vodafone’s network via an MVNO deal the pair struck in 2019. Virgin Media customers can expect average 5G speeds of 176 Mbps, according to Vodafone.

Virgin Media’s MVNO with Vodafone runs until 2026. Its current MVNO with BT/EE ends later this year, with Virgin Media’s 4G customers staying on the BT/EE network until the end of December 2021.   

As for the airwaves coming up for auction, the 700 MHz band in the U.K. was used for digital terrestrial TV and wireless microphones. The last phase of clearing wrapped up in August 2020 following a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent national lockdown, which delayed the process and expected Q2 2020 completion.

The 3.6-3.8 GHz frequencies airwaves are part of the main band being used for 5G in the UK and other countries globally.

RELATED: Sweden wraps up 5G auction in one day

Sweden last week wrapped up its 5G spectrum auction for licenses in the 2.3 GHz and 3.5 GHz band after just one day of bidding.

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission auctioned 70-megahertz of priority access licenses (PALs) in the shared Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 GHz band over the summer. Earlier this month it completed the first phase of the highly-anticipated C-band auction for licenses in 3.7 GHz band. After starting in December, bidding in second U.S. mid-band spectrum auction exploded.  Gross proceeds for the key airwaves ended above $80.9 billion, smashing expectations.