Ofcom delays spectrum auction till March 2021

Ofcom delays spectrum auction till March 2021

British telecoms regulator Ofcom have, yet again, delayed the auction of the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz spectrum bands until March 2021, citing the country’s current battle with COVID-19 as the prime reason.

The auction, which was originally planned to take place this month, would increase the total spectrum for UK operators by almost a fifth – at 18 percent.

“Throughout our planning for the auction we have been closely monitoring the coronavirus situation. Following a pause in the auction process, we are now planning for the principal stage of the auction (the start of bidding) to begin in March 2021. We will continue to monitor developments,” a brief statement by Ofcom said.

British telecoms giant BT called on the regulator to halt any further delays, highlighting the importance of 5G rollout that will aid economic recovery from the pandemic.

“We’re disappointed the auction will now be delayed although we understand the unique circumstances. The auction and subsequent release of spectrum remains central to the future rollout of mobile networks and 5G. The economy’s recovery from Covid-19 is dependent on resilient digital infrastructure and we urge Ofcom to resist any further requests for delays,” the BT statement read.

The auction will involve companies bidding for spectrum in two different frequency bands:

  • The 700MHz band – there is 80MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz band available. These airwaves are ideal for providing good-quality mobile coverage, both indoors and across very wide areas, including the countryside.
  • The 3.6-3.8GHz band – Ofcom is releasing 120MHz of spectrum in the 3.6-3.8GHz band. These airwaves are part of the primary band for 5G and can carry lots of data-hungry connections in concentrated areas.

Earlier in August 2020, Ofcom confirmed its plans to begin the bidding process in January 2021, which was met with resistance by several UK operators, who argued that the COVID-19 pandemic should allow Ofcom to allocate the spectrum to each operator at the reserve price.

In parallel, other operators pleaded for the regulator to intervene by defragmenting the current telco-owned spectrum.

Ofcom turned down both pleas, citing that there was no feasible way for them to simply allocate the spectrum quickly, efficiently, and fairly in light of their duties, noting that they would only facilitate spectrum trades between the operators where possible.

It is important to note that, if the auction takes place in March 2021, it will mark a year since the rules for it were laid out, with the main reason behind the initial delay being the six months spent on terrestrial broadcasters handing over their 700MHz spectrum.