5G UK auction

Ofcom 5G auction

Updated: 13th March, 2020

5G has finally arrived, at least in some places, but we only got to this point because of a 5G spectrum auction back in 2018, and for comprehensive coverage networks are going to want more 5G spectrum from future auctions.

​We’ve put together a guide to everything you need to know about the 5G auctions, from what frequencies have been and are being sold off, to how much each network has won and more. More information about the specifics of the different frequencies can be found in our guide to 5G Frequencies in the UK.

5G Spectrum Auction Results Summary (5th April, 2018)

Operator

2.3Ghz Spectrum Won 

3.4GHz Spectrum Won

O2

40Mhz

40Mhz

Vodafone

Nil

50MHz

EE

Nil

40MHz

Three

Nil

20MHz

Note: The 3.4GHz spectrum band here actually refers to spectrum ranging from 3.4GHz – 3.6GHz, with different operators acquiring spectrum across different parts of the band. Below we’ll detail exactly what spectrum each network acquired.

Ofcom’s first 5G spectrum auction was completed in April 2018, with EE, O2, Vodafone and Three all winning some spectrum.

O2 acquired the most, winning all 40MHz of the 2.3GHz spectrum that was being auctioned (paying £205,896,000), as well as 40MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum (for which it paid £317,720,000). Its 40MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum covered the 3500MHz – 3540MHz part of the band.

Vodafone meanwhile won 50MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum, paying £378,240,000, specifically acquiring the 3410MHz – 3460MHz part of the band.

EE paid £302,592,000 for 40MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum (covering 3540MHz – 3580MHz), and Three acquired the least, paying £151,296,000 for 20MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum, specifically the 3460MHz – 3480MHz range. However, the network already held 40MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum (specifically 3480MHz – 3500MHz and 3580MHz – 3600MHz), among other spectrum ideal for 5G.

In total, Ofcom auctioned 190MHz of high capacity spectrum in the 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz bands, comprising 40MHz in the 2.3GHz band and 150MHz in the 3.4GHz band.

That amount is equivalent to roughly three-quarters of the spectrum auctioned by Ofcom at the 4G spectrum auction in 2013, and increases the spectrum available for mobile devices by nearly a third. Spectrum in these bands is well suited to 5G, as it can carry large amounts of data.

What will the auctioned spectrum be used for?

The 2.3GHz spectrum was immediately available to operators to provide extra capacity for their 4G and 3G networks. The band is supported by a wide range of mobile devices from the likes of Apple, Samsung and others.

The 3.4GHz spectrum is not compatible with most current non-5G devices and is being used for the rollout of 5G networks. It has been identified as central to 5G rollout across Europe. The good news is that there’s a reasonable range of 5G phones now that will be able to make use of this spectrum.

Post Auction Operator Spectrum Holdings (4G and 5G)

Operator

Immediately useable

5G spectrum held

Total spectrum held

EE

255MHz

40MHz

295MHz

Vodafone

176MHz

50Mhz

226MHz

O2

126MHz 

40MHz

166MHz

Three

90MHz

224MHz

314MHz

The 5G spectrum auction results leave EE in a strong position, despite it not acquiring as much spectrum as O2 or Vodafone, as it already had so much more than them.

It had 255MHz before the auction and its total now is 295MHz, as it won 40MHz of the 3.4GHz band. This new spectrum wasn’t immediately useable, but EE has now launched its 5G network, so it can make full use of all its spectrum.

Three is in a strong position too, despite only obtaining 20Mhz of 3.4GHz spectrum in the first 5G auction.

That’s because it already had substantial spectrum holdings ideal for 5G, including 164MHz in the 3.6-4GHz band (obtained through its purchase of UK Broadband) and 40MHz of pre-existing spectrum in the 3.4GHz band. That, along with the 90MHz of spectrum that it was using for 4G and 3G, makes for a total of 314MHz.

Three argues that this spectrum haul makes it the only UK company that can offer ‘true’ 5G at launch.

Three has also managed to end up with a 100MHz contiguous block of spectrum within that, by adjusting the location of some of the spectrum it owns. That should further boost its 5G network.

As for Vodafone, it acquired the most 3.4GHz spectrum at the auction, but it’s in third place for spectrum holdings overall.

Previously it had 176Mhz and now, having won 50MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum, it has 226MHz.

O2 was the big auction winner but still has the least spectrum overall. That’s an improvement though. It now has 166Mhz (thanks to having purchased 40MHz of 2.3GHz spectrum and 40MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum), with 126Mhz of that being immediately useable, so it’s the only network that was able to benefit from the auction results before launching a 5G service.

All four networks have started rolling out their 5G services, so all are now able to fully tap into their auction winnings.

The upshot is that all the networks now have more spectrum than they did, and all now look a lot more prepared for 5G, but some seem in far stronger positions than others.

What spectrum is still to be auctioned?

At a separate auction, Ofcom plans to auction 120Mhz of spectrum in the even higher bandwidth 3.6GHz - 3.8GHz bands, as well as 80MHz in the 700MHz band. This is set to be the next spectrum auctioned, with spring 2020 currently planned for when the auction will take place.

Ofcom is also working on freeing up 168MHz of spectrum between 7.9GHz and 8.4GHz, and 2.25GHz of spectrum between 24.25GHz and 26.5GHz. Additionally, it plans to make the 1492-1517MHz band available for future wireless broadband services by December 2022.

There may yet be additional auctions beyond all this, as Ofcom has identified the 26GHz band (24.25-27.5GHz) as the next priority for global harmonisation, which it put forward for use at WRC-19 (World Radiocommunications Conference 2019), where the motion was supported.

Ofcom is also considering the 37-43.5 and 66-71GHz bands, and potentially also the 32GHz (31.8 – 33.4GHz) band.

Note however that not all of this spectrum will necessarily be ‘auctioned’ as such. Some might be offered on a first come, first served basis.

What was the spectrum previously used for?

The 2.3GHz - 3.4GHz spectrum was previously used by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), but has been freed up by the government to make it available for civil uses. This is part of a wider government initiative to release or share 500MHz of spectrum for civilian use by 2020. The 7.9GHz-8.4GHz spectrum was also being used by the MoD.

Some 3.4GHz spectrum is used for 4G wireless broadband, such as by Relish in London, which is now owned by Three following its acquisition of UK Broadband and has been rebranded as Three Broadband.

The spectrum in the 3.6GHz - 3.8GHz bands is partially in use by fixing links and satellite services, but Ofcom is aiming to auction off unused spectrum in those bands, hopefully without impacting those services.

The 700MHz band is used by Freeview television and wireless microphones. The government has contributed £500-600 million to clearing the spectrum, a process which began in March 2017 with the reconfiguration of a digital terrestrial television (DTT) transmitter in Selkirk. There’s a lot to be done to move DTT to the 470-690MHz spectrum and making alterative spectrum available for wireless microphones. Currently Ofcom expects the process to be complete by May 2020.

When will further auctions be held?

The 3.6GHz – 3.8GHz and 700MHz band auction is currently set to take place in spring 2020. Any auctions for other spectrum will happen sometime after that, but there's no news on when yet.

2017 auction rules

Ofcom published its final rules for the 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz auction in July 2017, designed to reflect recent market developments and safeguard competition now and in the future.

The rules imposed two restrictions on bidders to limit the amount of spectrum dominant operators could win:

  • No operator would be able to hold more than 255MHz of immediately usable spectrum, i.e. in the 2.3GHz band, following the auction.
  • No operator would be able to hold more than 340MHz of the total amount of spectrum following the auction, equivalent to 37% of all the mobile spectrum that is expected to be useable in 2020. This includes spectrum available in the completed auction and in the 700MHz band.

By imposing a cap on the overall amount of spectrum, Ofcom hoped to satisfy competition concerns while enabling all operators to develop 5G services, hence there was no limit on the amount of 3.4GHz spectrum a company can hold.

Ofcom wasn’t proposing any coverage obligations on the winning bidders like it did with the 4G auction in 2013. That’s because the provision of these latest frequencies is more about boosting network capacity than expanding network coverage.

What did the caps mean for bidders?

The caps meant that EE was not able to bid for spectrum in the 2.3GHz band and was able to win a maximum of 85MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum (though in reality it only came away with 40MHz), as before the auction it had around 45% of the UK’s immediately useable spectrum.

Vodafone was able to win a maximum of 160MHz of spectrum across both bands – a cap it didn’t come close to.

There were no restrictions on the amount of spectrum O2, Three or indeed any other bidder could win.

What did the spectrum cost?

Ofcom auctioned the spectrum in lots, with reserve prices of £10m per 10MHz lot of 2.3GHz spectrum and £1m for a 5MHz block in the 3.4GHz band. This gave a total reserve price of £70m for the total 190MHz of spectrum that was auctioned.

In practice, the costs went a lot higher than that. As noted above, O2 paid £205,896,000 for 40MHz of 2.3GHz spectrum, and 317,720,000 for 40MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum.

Vodafone paid £378,240,000 for 50MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum, EE paid £302,592,000 for 40MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum, and Three paid £151,296,000 for 20MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum. The total auction spend across all networks was £1,355,744,000.

Exact costs for future spectrum auctions remain to be seen, but we do know the reserve costs for the spring 2020 auction. Ofcom has announced the following:

  • Six lots of 2 x 5MHz (60MHz in total) in the 700MHz band with a reserve price of £100 million per lot.
  • Four lots of 5MHz (20MHz in total) of 700MHz downlink-only spectrum, with a reserve price of £1 million per lot.
  • 24 lots of 5MHz (120MHz in total) of 3.6-3.8 GHz spectrum, with a reserve price of £20 million per lot.

What will be the rules for future auctions?

Ofcom had talked about including coverage obligations for the next spectrum auction (for 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz spectrum), but has since changed its mind.

Ofcom ultimately decided that this auction (set to take place in the spring) will have a similar framework to the 2018 auction, using a format known as ‘simultaneous multiple round ascending’.

This will involve two stages. First up there’s a ‘principal stage’, in which networks would bid for airwaves in separate ‘lots’ (listed above) to determine how much spectrum they each win. Then there’s an ‘assignment stage’, which is a round of bidding to decide the specific frequencies that winning bidders will be allocated.

This is important as it will allow the networks to try and come away with large blocks of contiguous spectrum (which is ideal) rather than fragmented spectrum (which isn’t).

The only real restriction is a 37% (416MHz) cap on the overall spectrum that any one network can hold following the auction. That would mean that EE/BT can at most acquire 120MHz in the auction, Three at most 185MHz, and Vodafone at most 190MHz, with no limit on what O2 can acquire.

What’s next?

All four major UK networks have begun rolling out their 5G networks with the help of the spectrum they won in the first 5G spectrum auction. Providing widespread 5G coverage though is a process that will likely take years, and will be aided by additional spectrum auctions, the first of which is happening sometime in spring 2020. So expect some or all of the UK’s networks to increase their spectrum holdings soon.

Useful reading: What is 5G?

Sacha Kavanagh
About Sacha Kavanagh

Research Analyst/ Technical Writer

Sacha has more than 20 years’ experience researching and writing about enterprise tech, telecoms, data centres, cloud and IoT. She is a researcher, writer and analyst, and a regular contributor to 5G.co.uk writing guides and articles on all aspects of 5G.

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