UK: Ofcom's mobile data strategy consultation

10 December 2013

Colin Long

Background to Consultation

Ofcom published this Consultation on November 21, 2013, with a closing date for responses to its questions embedded in the document of 30 January 2014. This note is a brief commentary on and summary of Ofcom's deliberations and proposals.

Mobile networks are becoming increasingly important to society, covering not simply the provision of mobile broadband services to smartphones and laptops, but also offering the channels for a myriad of different communications paths connecting the Internet of Things.  It is also perhaps worth noting that many of the devices connected in this way will in themselves not necessarily be  portable but instead fixed (e.g. machine to machine), even though they may sometimes be part of a larger structure that is moving, e.g. telematics for vehicles.  The data may also be transported over 4G and later generations of mobile networks, rather than the Internet.  For all these reasons, wireless data is perhaps a more apt expression than mobile data.

According to an Intel prediction, by 2020 there will be some 31 billion 'connected devices' ranging from mobile phones (which no doubt   by that time will barely resemble phones as currently recognised) to appliances that can be switched on/off remotely, to sensors on humans and other animals. Other predictions include the fact that global mobile data traffic would increase 18 fold between 2011 and 2016 (Cisco) and that, by 2014, traffic from wireless devices will exceed traffic from wired devices (if it has not already happened).  Analysys Mason recently estimated that radio frequency spectrum's contribution to UK GDP was £52 billion in 2011, an increase of 25% in real terms since 2006, mostly delivered through mobile communications.

In July this year, the Government's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published its statement on Connectivity, Content and Consumers (Britain's digital platform for growth) in which, following a two-year review of the media and telecommunications sectors, it identified four areas for action, including achieving what it calls 'world-class connectivity', and declared that it would set out a ten-year plan to deliver greater public value from the use of electromagnetic spectrum.  It would also continue its work to deliver its target of releasing 500MHz spectrum from public sector use by 2020. 

Working with Ofcom and spectrum users, DCMS stated that it will develop and publish early in 2014 its UK Spectrum Strategy setting out the key changes necessary over the next 10 to 15 years.  This will apparently cover all UK spectrum use, set within an international context, and also clearly set out the roles and responsibilities of Government and Ofcom (a clarification of regulatory demarcation much to be welcomed).  

Ofcom's Mobile Data Strategy Consultation is thus part of this broader picture.  In it Ofcom identifies the challenges faced by the industry and itself in meeting demands for mobile data growth, including the need for continuing technology improvements, deploying networks making more effective use of existing spectrum, ensuring competition between service providers, taking account of other (e.g. non-mobile) demands on spectrum and improving coverage.

Objective of Ofcom

The core objective of Ofcom's strategy as set out in the Consultation is to identify and prioritise actions which facilitate the continued long-term growth in consumer benefits from increasing use of mobile data services.

Ofcom outlines its proposed work as being:

  • identifying the potential for mobile data use of a number of new and emerging bands
  • setting preliminary prioritisation of such bands, and
  • eventual final prioritisation of these bands,

which should also inform the UK's approach in the run-up to WRC-15, the ITU's World Radio Conference on band allocation. 

In regard to this prioritisation, Ofcom identifies the following key drivers of change that could influence future spectrum demands, namely: (a) the use of small cells and Wi-Fi for carrying mobile data traffic, and (b) the potential demands of emerging machine-to-machine communications.

Future demands

As mentioned above, the expression mobile data services used by Ofcom here is obviously not limited merely to  communication services supporting the transfer of data to mobile devices, which would be rather limiting and indeed exclude a lot of potential mobile network traffic to and from fixed points.  Rather, it appears intended to cover wireless data communications of all kinds, including data offload to WiFi networks.

Ofcom looks to facilitate competing demands for spectrum to support mobile data services in a number of ways:

(i) from the broadest perspective, ensuring that there continues to be robust competition between the established mobile network operators, whilst at the same time looking for opportunities to promote market entry by niche players such as Wi-Fi providers, users of white spaces and other wireless-based innovative services;

(ii) improving coverage beyond network licensees' regulatory obligations;

(iii) understanding the possibilities likely to come from future technology evolution;

(iv) ongoing management of wireless and wired backhaul in order to support demands for high availability for 4G services and to promote competition and

(v) supporting major initiatives in the use of spectrum and international negotiations for this purpose, e.g. awards of new spectrum in 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz bands.  Ofcom admits that it needs to develop a longer term strategy in relation to potential future spectrum options.

Technology drivers of change

Ofcom looks at trends in technology and network topology affecting long-term demand for spectrum for mobile data services.  It sees these as including: improvements in spectral efficiency; the use of wider channel bandwidths; advanced antenna techniques such as MIMO; developments of new technologies to address the asymmetry between uplink and downlink capacity demands, such as supplementary downlink (SDL); greater co-ordination between base stations, using fast links via fibre or fixed wireless; spectrum sharing; the potential for delivering broadcast TV over mobile networks; the use of smaller cells; Wi-Fi offload and load-balancing techniques. 

Prioritisation of the use of different spectrum bands

Assessing the potential demand for a band on the basis of (a) the capacity the band can provide and (b) coverage and whether the band's propagation characteristics will assist coverage or boost performance, in summary the high priority bands Ofcom finds to be the following:

1452-1492MHz

This band is currently licensed to Qualcomm in the UK as a single block of 40MHz.  A recent ECC decision supports a change of use of this band to SDL, which provides additional downlink capacity to enhance the capacity of paired spectrum in another (mobile) band.

1980-2010/2170-2200MHz

This is the MSS frequency band currently licensed at an EU level to Inmarsat and Solaris.  The EU RSPG apparently contends that the licensees' mobile satellite services have not been a commercial success and has recommended the European Commission should consider reallocation of the band for terrestrial mobile services if future actions taken by EU Member States result in the withdrawal of such licences.

3600-3800MHz

This band is already partly used for mobile data services commercially but also for satellite earth stations.  The band has already been harmonised at a European level for mobile use.

5350-5470MHz and 5725-5925MHz

This band exclusively supports the latest version of the Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac, which is capable of delivering speeds similar to current superfast broadband services throughout the home or office.  In future years the band is apparently likely to become increasingly important for Wi-Fi as the existing allocation at 2.4GHz becomes more congested.

Timing of availability of bands

Whilst recognising and warning of the surrounding uncertainties, Ofcom has set out its assessment of the likely availability of the high-priority and other considered bands in the Table below: 


Table 7 - Potential timing if bands are made available for mobile data

Source: Ofcom Mobile Data Strategy Consultation – 21 November 2013

Mobile data requirements indoors are normally best met by WiFi, and as Ofcom states, WiFi at 5 GHz should bring much higher speeds to a larger proportion of consumers during the latter half of this decade. Mobile network capacity at sub-1 GHz to support greater mobility in the more under-served areas is also forecasted to rise steadily. However the underlying message is that in the short term, for these areas at least, the digital divide does look likely to widen.

Longer term, Ofcom sees the picture as more rosy, with relative to 2012 a forecasted 37 times increase in total mobile data capacity by 2030. Whether even that will prove adequate is one for the crystal ball gazers.