The regulator has started a consultation on proposals to make a ‘large amount’ of millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum available to the UK operators

This week, UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has announced the first steps towards making mmWave 5G a reality for the operators, launching a consultation on its proposal to release spectrum in the 26GHz (24.25–27.5GHz) and 40GHz (40.5–43.5GHz) bands.

Currently, UK operators provide 5G services across a variety of spectrum bands between 700MHz and 3.8GHz, already offering considerably lower latency and higher speeds than were previously available to customers using 4G LTE. 

mmWave spectrum, on the other hand, will offer even lower latency and significantly faster speeds, potentially even allowing for multi-gigabit download speeds on a mobile device. 

However, the blistering speeds of mmWave 5G comes with a catch: propagation. mmWave signals are considerably shorter ranged than their sub-6GHz counterparts and are much more easily disrupted, often struggling to penetrate windows and even being noticeably degraded during rainy weather. As a result, operators will need to deploy an extremely dense mmWave 5G network to ensure good coverage and reliability for customers – something that will likely to be too expensive to implement in all but the most highly populated areas, at least for the foreseeable future.

But before the operators can get their hands on the new spectrum, various details must be ironed out first. 

For the 26GHz band, Ofcom is suggesting offering a combination of citywide and local licences. The regulator suggests it will make the lower 850MHz of the band available for local permits in major towns and cities on a first come first served basis, with the remaining spectrum in the band auctioned being auctioned for these areas. 

In less high-density areas, where Ofcom expects mmWave deployment to be sparser, the entirety of the 26Ghz band will be auctioned directly. 

Ofcom also notes that part of the 26GHz band is currently used for fixed point-to-point links and suggests that the licences for these fixed links be revoked in and around high-density areas, noting that other spectrum bands can accommodate this function. Ofcom expects to give five years’ notice before any licences are revoked.

In the 40GHz band, meanwhile, the situation is no less complicated. Spectrum is currently already ‘block assigned’, meaning the operators manage their own deployments in licenced frequencies, rather than ‘Ofcom assigned’, whereby the regulator provides specific licences for each link operating within the band. 

Three is the only UK mobile operator to already hold a block of spectrum in the 40GHz band, though this is not currently licenced to provide 5G services. Mobile Broadband Network Limited, a network sharing joint venture by EE and Three also has an existing licence for 40GHz spectrum, as does MLL 40 GHz Limited, a provider of managed network services.

As a result, Ofcom is seeking the industry’s opinion as to whether it should allow existing licensees to deploy mobile services in the bands they already occupy or revoke these licences to allow reallocation at the same time as the 26GHz band. A combination of these options could also be viable.

If Ofcom were to grant Three a licence to make use of this spectrum for 5G services, the regulator warns that it will consider capping the amount of additional mmWave spectrum Three could win at auction for the sake of maintaining healthy market competition.

The consultation period is set to close on the 18th of July 2022, with Ofcom’s subsequent approach to the auction set to be published some time in Q3. 

If all goes to plan, with no major detractions from the operators, the spectrum auction itself could take place in 2024.

What impact will mmWave have on the UK’s 5G ecosystem? Find out from the operators at this year’s live Connected Britain conference