UK watchdog in bitter fight with mobile ops

The UK's telecom regulator Ofcom has become embroiled in a furious row with mobile operators over spectrum allocation, forcing the telecoms minister, Lord Carter to intervene.

The regulator wants to resell spectrum for fast mobile internet access. It has proposed that O2 and Vodafone, the country's two largest mobile network operators, should relinquish the spectrum they currently use for their lower frequency, 90MHz 2G networks to improve mobile broadband coverage in rural areas (fewer base stations are needed than for higher frequency signals) and speed up internet access generally.

This 2G spectrum is attractive, as it is low frequency, meaning wireless signals can travel long distances on it. That means operators have to erect fewer towers and base stations compared with high-frequency spectrum. The 2G spectrum could therefore be particularly useful for extending 3G mobile internet services from urban to rural areas.

Ofcom has been suggesting the reuse of this spectrum since 2004 and has also said the spectrum could be offered to other mobile operators, such as Orange and T-Mobile.

Ofcom is due to publish new proposals on liberalisation of 2G spectrum in January or February. Meanwhile, O2 and T-Mobile are taking Ofcom to court over its plans to auction a chunk of spectrum in 2009 at the 2.6 GHz band, which could be used for 3G mobile services. They said the auction should not go ahead until they know what is happening on liberalisation of 2G spectrum.

The legal challenge is likely to be heard in March.