The telecoms regulator has announced plans to free up a 700 MHz frequency band, which is currently used for digital terrestrial television, to avoid a possible ‘capacity crunch’ and meet users’ growing demand for mobile data.
Ofcom said it is necessary to begin preparing plans now to support the release of spectrum for 4G’s successor, possibly ‘5G’, when it becomes available.
Alongside the announcement, Ofcom published its Infrastructure Report update, highlighting the scale of demand for data in the UK.
Today, 20 million gigabytes of data is now being consumed in a month over the country’s mobile networks – double the amount last year, Ofcom’s report found – adding that demand for mobile data could be 80 times higher by 2030.
Ofcom says releasing the new frequencies can be achieved without the need for another TV ‘switchover’, and is necessary to remain in line with spectrum planning across Europe and the rest of the world.
To ensure the long-term future of digital terrestrial TV (DTT), which Ofcom says performs an important role in providing low-cost, near-universal access to public service TV channels, the regulator said it will ensure that alternative frequencies are available for DTT when the next generation of mobile broadband is introduced towards the end of the decade.
"It is important that different countries use the same frequencies of spectrum for mobile broadband to create economies of scale and widen the availability of handsets, which should in turn reduce prices for consumers," said Ofcom in a statement on Friday.
While the arrival of 4G mobile networks will provide bandwidth, fixed-network providers are also developing to keep pace with consumers’ growing use of data-hungry internet services, such as on-demand video, Ofcom said.
“Within the coming months we will hold the UK’s largest-ever auction of mobile spectrum for 4G," said Ofcom CEO Ed Richards. "However, that may not be enough to meet consumers’ future data demands, which is why we are already making significant efforts to prepare to go beyond 4G.
“Our plans are designed to avoid a ‘capacity crunch’, ensuring that the UK’s mobile infrastructure can continue to support the inescapable growth in consumer demand and economic growth more generally."
“The move towards a harmonised spectrum for mobile broadband was expected; with the announcement by Ofcom we now have a vague timetable that allows us to look at the likely impact," said Andrew Ferguson, editor of thinkbroadband.com.
"There is unlikely to be international agreement on changes to the spectrum use prior to 2018, so people can be re-assured that once filter changes are carried out to their FreeView box when 4G is rolled out, that the device should work till at least 2018. This is well beyond the life span of most set-top boxes given how people upgrade them to gain more features anyway," Ferguson said.
"Ofcom has initially said that the majority of FreeView boxes today would be able to manage with a simple retune, so with six to eight years before any likely change there is little need for a panic, especially compared to the problems of the Digital Switchover where people had to come to terms with set-top boxes," he said.