Spectrum sharing

Whilst some two-thirds of the EU’s 28 member states permit spectrum sharing, the reality was that there are very few significant spectrum sharing deals in the market. The UK is one of the more vocal of EU markets on the topic.  As part of its ten year spectrum management plan – published in April 2014 Ofcom stated that it wanted to take the international lead on spectrum management and it saw a key aspect of this role to mean exploring opportunities for new types of spectrum sharing and managing the co-existence of different services. Earlier this year [2015] Phillip Marnick, group policy director for Ofcom, restated the view that increasing spectrum sharing had to be a central tenet of UK spectrum management.

It seems that Ofcom have held good on their intentions. The 2015 consultation document (published on 31 July, just in time for summer vacations) is focussed on setting a new framework for spectrum sharing by introducing a set of regulatory tools and market/technology enablers to facilitate sharing, as well as setting out on a case by case basis how sharing will be viewed from both incumbent perspective and for new uses.

Ofcom focus on three areas: the barriers, the remedies – which they deem enablers – and characteristics of use.

The barriers: 

Ofcom set out a non-exhaustive list of what they see to be possible barriers in the UK market. These include:

  • The availability of information on spectrum use and spectrum demand (i.e. without accurate information on use it is not possible to identify opportunities for sharing or to deduce which other barriers might be playing a role in preventing sharing):
  • Barriers to sharing through market mechanisms, e.g. transparency, high transaction costs, lack of incentives and “strategic concerns” (such as uncertainty about the future).
  • Technological challenges; and
  • Constraints on flexible spectrum use from Ofcom’s own regulatory approach (e.g. if it is too onerous for a licence holder to vary the terms of a licence so it can be used by another type of service).

The remedies:

Again a non-exhaustive list on which public opinion is sought. These include:

  • Market enablers i.e. how market mechanisms can be developed to overcome some of the barriers to sharing by commercial arrangement.
  • Technology enablers i.e. ways that technology can enable more intelligent and efficient sharing, e.g. enhancements to geolocation databases, potential to manage access between opportunistic sharers or more frequency agile equipment; and
  • Authorisation tools i.e. how authorisation conditions on MNOs should provide incentives to share or to make sharing technically feasible.

High level “characteristics of use”:

Ofcom identify certain use characteristics to give a high level picture of what an incumbent or new user needs from spectrum access. These relate to temporal requirements of the service, geography and coverage, service quality, technical issues re power and directionality, economies of scale and harmonisation, capacity and density.
The consultation closes on 2 October and thereafter Ofcom will update the proposed framework. Whether there will be another round of consultation is not yet clear. However the intention is for the final framework to be published by the end of 2015/early 2016.
With spectrum demands growing  – very much driven by the huge growth in both the internet of things and mobile data – more efficient use of the finite spectrum resource is essential.  The question is simply whether the proposals set out in this recent consultation are bold enough to achieve these aims. It is one matter to get people interested in talking to everyone else to share spectrum better. However to really change business, there has to be more than just talk.

First published on www.olswang.com in September 2015.

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