The next phase of the UK’s 5G spectrum auction is still between 6 and 18 months away, thanks to a combination of coronavirus and potential legal action from UK operators.
The UK telecoms regulatory authority Ofcom doesn’t expect bidding for the next portion of the 5G spectrum to commence until November 2020 at the earliest, having previously been set to take place in the spring of 2020.
Ofcom has confirmed that this latest delay is down to the ongoing coronavirus lockdown. It also issued the caveat that its revised November estimate “is dependent on how the Government’s plans for lifting the current lockdown restrictions evolve”.
Another key stipulation for this date is that “there is no litigation of our final auction decision”. This is a reference to threats of legal action from several UK operators during consultation on the finalised auction rules, and in particular a ‘letter before claim’ from O2 issued in early March. If such legal challenges are followed through, we could see the 5G spectrum auction date pushed back closer to November 2021.
Ofcom finalised its rules for the auction of 80MHz of spectrum frequency in the 700MHz band and 120MHz in the 3.6–3.8GHz band back in March. But UK operator O2 then threatened an additional lengthy delay by challenging Ofcom’s lack of oversight on the matter of spectrum defragmentation.
As things stand, three of the four UK operators suffer from a somewhat scattered allotment of 5G spectrum. Only Three has a sizeable slice of contiguous 5G-ready spectrum, in the form of 100 MHz of prime 3.4–3.8 GHz band real estate.
While all four of the UK’s major mobile operators will be free to negotiate a spectrum trade among themselves as part of the auction, EE, Vodafone and O2 have previously called on Ofcom to lead such a spectrum defragmentation process. Ofcom rejected these petitions, which prompted O2 - the least well-endowed operator when it comes to 5G spectrum - to issue a legal threat.
While Ofcom has provided a best-possible-scenario date of November 2020 for the auction to take place, the Financial Times recently reported that it could take as long as 18 months for any legal action to play out.
Ofcom recently launched a brief consultation relating to a specific technical point of the proposed 5G auction, which saw the regulator agreeing to change some of its assignment process. O2 issued a positive response to this update, stating: “We believe this is a positive step enabling the mobile operators to secure contiguous spectrum in this key 5G band”.
Hopefully this signifies a softening of stances, and an increased likelihood that the UK’s 5G spectrum rollout will commence in late 2020 rather than late 2021.