Ofcom Denies Spectrum Bundling

U.K. regulator Ofcom has denied rumors that it will further delay the 2.6 GHz mobile broadband auction so refarmed 900 MHz spectrum can be bundled into the same auction.

Industry chatter at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week suggested that Ofcom was prepared to further delay the 2.6 GHz auction so the refarmed 900 MHz spectrum, currently used only for GSM services, could be included in the process. The resulting delay would have pushed the auction well into 2009. (See Down on the (Re)Farm, What Ofcom Giveth..., and Ofcom Tackles Spectrum Usage.)

The speculation irked some movers and shakers in the WiMax sector, who are keen to see the 2.6 GHz spectrum in commercial use as soon as possible. That's because Ofcom is allowing the band to be used for mobile WiMax services as well as 3G.

Ofcom has denied these market rumblings. "We have no plans to include the [refarmed 900 MHz] spectrum in the 2.6 MHz auction," says an Ofcom spokesman. "That's an unequivocal 'no.'"

The Ofcom rep explains that the 2.6 GHz auction and spectrum refarming are two "completely separate processes" and the regulator won't be able to auction the refarmed spectrum until some time in 2009.

Ofcom plans to hold the auction for the 2500 MHz to 2690 MHz frequency band, also known as the IMT-2000 expansion band, this summer, "probably before August." Further details about the auction are set to be released within the next month.

The 2.6 GHz auction is particularly controversial because WiMax players will go head-to-head with traditional cellular operators to win licenses in this spectrum.

Running late
But even if the 2.6 GHz auction runs to the new schedule, it will already be at least six or seven months late. The auction was originally scheduled for late last year or early this year. As a result, the potential introduction of mobile WiMax at 2.6 GHz in the U.K. has already been delayed. (See Spectrum Up for Grabs in Europe.)

According to an industry source, who requested anonymity, the delay is due to Ofcom's concerns that it may have to deal with potential lawsuits from mobile operators over the inclusion of WiMax in the auction and the uncertainty of 900 MHz spectrum refarming.

Previously, mobile operators had argued that WiMax should not be used in the 2.6 GHz band, which was originally set aside only for IMT-2000 (3G) technologies. However, WiMax was officially adopted into the IMT-2000 family in late 2007, which shatters that argument and leaves the mobile operators looking for other ways to fend off any potential WiMax competition. (See WiMax Wins ITU Approval and WiMax Gets ITU Standards Boost .)

Mobile operators have also argued that it would be unfair to auction a new 3G spectrum when they didn't know how the spectrum refarming issue would play out, and whether they'd be able to use their existing 900 MHz 2G spectrum for 3G services.

Ofcom has, at least, begun the first phase of its consultation on spectrum refarming, which was introduced in the fall of last year.

Others believe the delay is simply down to the long-winded and arduous consultation process Ofcom is obliged to go through each time it does anything.

"Ofcom has tried to avoid a situation where they make a decision and later be challenged by somebody," says Stephen Lowe, chairman of the Broadband Wireless Assocation.

The next step for this auction is for Ofcom to publish more specific details about the spectrum, something that is set to happen in the next month.

Delay irrelevant - source
One industry source has another take on the 2.6 GHz delay, saying that it has made no difference at all to the development of the U.K. mobile WiMax sector.

The seasoned executive, who requested anonymity, says the scarcity of relevant end-user devices and a lack of the Wave 2 chipsets needed for mobile WiMax base stations means it's still too early yet for any meaningful rollout. (See WiMax: The Chips Are Up.)

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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