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Ofcom stops BT/EE from buying more 4G spectrum

Monday, November 21st 2016 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

Ofcom has stopped EE and its parent company BT buying more airwaves to add capacity to its 4G network.

The airwaves used by mobile providers – known as spectrum – are auctioned off periodically by Ofcom and up until now there has been no cap on how much spectrum any one network can acquire.

But ahead of the latest auction, concern over BT/EE’s dominance of the market has led the communications watchdog to set a limit of 255 MHz on “immediately usable” spectrum.

BT/EE currently holds 45% of immediately usable spectrum. Vodafone has 28%, O2 15% and Three 12%.

Another 40 MHz of spectrum in the 2.3 GHz band will be made available next year, but the new limit means BT/EE will not be able to bid.

The 2.3 GHz band will be useful to providers wanting to add extra capacity to their network – meaning faster downloads and internet browsing for consumers.

Also up for auction will be 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3.4 GHz band. This band is not supported by current mobile phones but is likely to play an important role in the future rollout of 5G services.

Ofcom is not capping the amount of 3.4 GHz spectrum any one provider can buy, as it wants to encourage the early development of 5G networks – something that hasn’t gone down well with Three.

'Empty promises'

“Ofcom exists to promote competition and protect consumers but it has once again shown it is not willing to make the big decisions needed to deliver the best outcome for the UK,” said Three CEO Dave Dyson.

“It has allowed BT and Vodafone to stockpile valuable mobile airwaves and put genuine choice for consumers at risk. It made empty promises to the European Commission that it would tackle this issue but it doesn’t have the courage to do so.

“The mobile industry is failing customers and Ofcom has showed it has no interest in addressing that. A 30% cap on total spectrum ownership and a spectrum reservation for smaller operators are the only measures that will preserve competition for the benefit of UK mobile consumers.”

Announcing the rules for its next spectrum auction, Ofcom’s spectrum group director Philip Marnick said: “Spectrum is the essential resource that fuels the UK’s economy. This auction can help ensure that UK consumers can access the mobile data services they need, and that operators can continue to innovate and build for the future.

“The UK has long benefitted from strong mobile competition. We are designing the auction to ensure everyone benefits from a market that continues to innovate and serve them well.”

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