“Do I hear rural coverage?”: Bidding has begun for the latest chunk of the UK’s airwaves as 5G starts to move, but what will ‘coverage’ actually mean?

On Tuesday, 20thMarch 2018, bidding began amongst mobile firms as part of the eagerly-anticipated spectrum auction for 5G. The four main mobile networks (O2, Three, EE and Vodafone) and one newcomer (Airspan) will battle it out for their share during the coming weeks. At the end of Tuesday’s initial round, bids were already made up to £16m in total.

In terms of what’s being made available, some 40MHz of spectrum within the 2.3GHz band will allow operators to immediately improve 4G services. There will also be 150MHz available in the 3.4GHz band, which is not yet compatible with current devices but will be used for the rollout of the much-hyped 5G networks.


Why the fuss over 5G?

In a word; speed. 5G will greatly ramp up data speeds on phones and tablets but it will also play a part in freeing up bandwidth to keep billions of devices connected to the web – something much needed as the Internet of Things grows ever more pervasive.

5G also has the potential to literally transform towns and cities. The speed and level of connection it boasts could allow driverless cars to communicate more reliably with traffic lights and with other cars to anticipate traffic build-ups and avoid collisions.

Councils are currently rushing to install sensors in street lights, parking spaces and even bins in efforts to make services run more efficiently. 5G could help them all communicate with each other.


So, who’s going to get it?

This is perhaps where people are getting a little ahead of themselves. The airspace being sold off by Ofcom is to support both the expansion of capacity for existing 4G mobile networks (2.3GHz spectrum) and to form the core of future 5G mobile networks (3.4GHz spectrum).

In other words, in the short-term, the only difference users will notice is an enhancement in 4G functionality and capability in areas already covered. As alluded to earlier, existing devices aren’t even compatible with 5G, although that’s not to say that ‘Who’s going to get it?’ isn’t a valid question.

Late next year, the 700MHz band of radio spectrum is next to go to auction. The 700MHz for Mobile Broadband will allow Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to cover a wider area, deliver better indoor coverage and do both for less cost. This being the case, Ofcom have already intimated that they plan to attach coverage obligations to some of the licences awarded for the 700 MHz band.


Houses and Hills

Broadly these obligations are likely to focus firstly on improved coverage of premises (and their immediate surrounds) in areas where there is currently no indoor coverage from any operator. A move already being referred to as the ‘premises obligation’.

The second obligation focuses on providing increased geographic coverage in rural areas. Operators acquiring the licences carrying these obligations must provide good coverage across at least 92% of the total UK landmass, a figure expected to equate to more than 90% of the rural landmass in England and Northern Ireland, 83% in Wales, and 76% in Scotland.


A walking boot in the right direction

Some dissenting voices are decrying the move to focus 5G coverage on rural UK, claiming that it is most needed in urban areas where the Internet of Things will be concentrated, and most commerce is conducted.

However, such urban areas will already have comparably good coverage and those living in them will benefit from improved coverage over a wider area as they travel around in the future for either business or pleasure.

Excluding rural areas from enhanced coverage would also run the risk of alienating them further. 5G has the potential to improve lives in all kinds of ways. Those living away from the big conurbations have just as much right to access this potential as those living within them.