Is 5G on the Horizon? UK Regulators Talk of Paying it Forward

By Peter Bernstein November 20, 2012

You feel some peace of mind that while your device and the network it connects to will not be totally obsolete for many years; however, just as the intervals between phone generations are shrinking, because of the need for speed and the shortage of spectrum to accommodate it, so too have the intervals been mobile network generations as operators and regulators search for “clean air” in which to go faster, faster.

Thus, the news that UK telecoms regulator Ofcom is preparing to support the release of spectrum for future mobile services, possibly 5G, is not surprising. The regulators are fully aware of the importance of ubiquitous mobile broadband to their country’s future economic vitality and they want to be ready. Think of this as making sure there is a good seawall in place before the tsunami hits, rather paying for the damage after it has inundated “E”veryone and “E”verything.

Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive, said: 'Within the coming months we will hold the UK's largest-ever auction of mobile spectrum for 4G. However, that may not be enough to meet consumers' future data demands, which is why we are already making significant efforts to prepare to go beyond 4G."

It turns out that Ofcom believes that by 2030, demand for mobile data could be 80 times higher than today. The reason it believes that being forewarned is validation for being forearmed can be seen in the statistics for just the past year. An estimated 20 million Gigabytes of data is consumed per month over mobile networks in the UK – more than twice (nine million Gigabytes ) the monthly consumption rate for just last year.

Since there is a general consensus, we are literally going to be swamped by bandwidth hungry apps in the hands of individuals with an exploding population of personal devices. What is Ofcom looking at?

A posting on the Ofcom plans on phys.org is revealing, and the idea is to re-farm spectrum. The 700MHz frequency band – currently used by digital terrestrial television (DTT) – is being looked at as a candidate for moving in order to free up the band for 5G use. The item quotes Richards as calling the change "a migration," rather than a fork lift.

Ofcom believe that in most cases, it would only require a re-tune of existing TV equipment. And, if you live in the UK and are concerned since 4G is just being rolled out, not to worry. Ofcom does not think a new spectrum plan would happen before 2018. The article also notes that the company likes the idea because using the 700 MHz band would align the UK with future harmonized spectrum planning across Europe, which based on economies of scale and scope, would make it easier and less expensive for network infrastructure providers to participate in the market, hopefully with less expensive services and handsets.

It should also be noted that while Ofcom is looking at the spectrum for mobile operators to increase their marco-cellular capacity, they also pointed out that there is also an "untapped opportunity" for public Wi-Fi to meet consumer data demands. Indeed, having just moderated the Wi-Fi Wireless Broadband Congress in San Francisco, while the estimates that about 25 times more data is currently downloaded over mobile networks than Wi-Fi hotspots today, it is only going to be a matter of a few short years rather than many before the tables are turned.

What this means for consumers is that it is safe to invest in that iPhone5 or Samsung Galaxy III, and whatever new 4G devices with Wi-Fi, or for that matter Wi-Fi only devices, appear as “must haves” for your holiday shopping this year and next. The regulators obviously have to look ahead, and even like with delight at the possibility of increasing the public coffers with auction revenues of licensed spectrum, but how all of this plays out in the market as things like Wi-Fi, 802.11 ac and Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) proliferate along with Wi-Fi roaming and increased Wi-Fi ubiquity in heavy traffic areas, makes thinking too much about 5G in 2018 a bit problematic.

That said, it is good to see regulators trying to be proactive rather than reactive, but the G force is most likely going to be part of the mix of how major operators evolve their business models to keep customers connected to their billing systems no matter the access technology.

The technology may be interesting, but at the end of the day, it is all about making money, and in this time of a perfect storm of economic and uncertainly and customer fickleness, this is going to be as much about which ecosystem prevails as it will be about G forces.




Edited by Allison Boccamazzo
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