Spectrum Sharing Comes of Age!

Ofcom’s recent statement on shared access to spectrum supporting mobile technology represents a significant step towards making more spectrum available for use by communities, industry, and businesses across the UK. It provides opportunities for people and businesses to set up and run their own private networks, and it paves the way for innovative approaches to addressing the problem of providing mobile coverage in hard-to-reach remote areas.

5G RuralFirst is a strong advocate of spectrum sharing. We have believed from the outset that 5G presents an opportunity to consider new ways of doing things – including how spectrum is accessed and managed. In particular, we see an opportunity for a blend of spectrum access approaches to be made available, comprising licensed, licence-exempt, and shared access.

Actually, shared access to spectrum isn’t new in itself. We’ve been doing it for many years with Wi‑Fi and Bluetooth, for example. In those cases, our Wi‑Fi and Bluetooth devices share spectrum on a licence-exempt basis; they operate in licence-exempt bands. What’s significant about Ofcom’s latest plans is the fact that we’re now talking about shared access to spectrum which has been licensed nationally to mobile network operators, and this is a relatively new, and highly significant, development.

Mobile network operators tend not to make use of the spectrum that they have a licence for in every single location of the country. In fact, there are many areas (typically in rural locations) where the spectrum is not utilized at all. We at 5G RuralFirst are therefore of the view that spectrum sharing ought to form a key part of 5G, allowing communities and alternative communications providers an opportunity to ensure that 5G achieves maximum penetration. This is of particular significance in remote areas where the business models for 4G and 3G have resulted in little or no coverage.

Ofcom’s new plans for spectrum sharing go beyond just the 5G bands though. They encompass ‘shared access’ bands at 1.8 GHz, 2.3 GHz, 3.8‑4.2 GHz, and 24.25‑26.5 GHz as well as access on a ‘local licence’ basis to spectrum that is licensed on a national basis to mobile network operators but not being used by them in all locations. This currently covers nine existing mobile bands, and as more bands are made available for mobile use in the future, they will also become available for sharing under the local licensing approach.

The exact details of how each of these bands may be used under the spectrum sharing framework depends on various factors. In some cases, the spectrum will be available for indoor use only; in other cases, the provision of mobile broadband services will not be permitted. Maximum permitted transmission power levels also depend on specific factors related to the intended usage.

Overall, Ofcom’s new spectrum sharing approach is very welcome. It will benefit a range of uses in both urban and rural areas, and it will allow community organizations and businesses to develop new applications and improvements to existing ones.

Under Ofcom’s current plans, these Shared Access and Local Access licences will be administered manually: users will apply for a licence, Ofcom will consider the application, and, if appropriate, a licence will then be issued in the usual way. Looking to the future, however, Ofcom is planning to assess whether a transition towards Dynamic Spectrum Access (DSA) with a fully-automated spectrum authorization database makes sense. The University of Strathclyde, via its Centre for White Space Communications, has long been a pioneer of this approach, and we, alongside others within the 5G RuralFirst consortium, believe that it will ultimately become the way in which spectrum is managed generally.

In the meantime, we welcome the changes announced in the statement, and we look forward to the opportunities and benefits that spectrum sharing will inevitably bring.