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Going, going, gone... until March: UK comms regulator delays 5G spectrum auction over pandemic logistics

Some things can wait, even if it is central to the 'economy's recovery'

Updated The UK's telecoms regulator has said it will delay the upcoming auction of the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz radio bands as result of difficulties caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Ofcom had mooted running the auction in November last year, before settling on this month. It has since opted to push the opening to March 2021 as the virus outbreak as thrown a wrench into everyone's schedules and plans. In a statement, Ofcom said:

Throughout our planning for the auction we have been closely monitoring the coronavirus situation. Following a pause in the auction process, we are now planning for the principal stage of the auction to begin in March 2021. We will continue to monitor developments.

In addition to being a nice money-spinner for government, this additional spectrum will help carriers improve coverage, while also increasing the capacity and quality of mobile data services. On offer is 80MHz within the 700MHz band, which was obtained by pruning out other users, including digital terrestrial TV services and wireless microphones.

Ofcom is packaging this as six lots of 10MHz (split across two 5MHz chunks), with a reserve price of £100m per lot, as well as four lots of 5MHz downlink-only spectrum, with a reserve price of £1m per lot.

Within the 3.6-3.8GHz spectrum, Ofcom is flogging off 120MHz split across 24 lots of 5MHz. These will each carry a reserve price of £20m per lot.

For those playing along at home, that's a minimum of £1.084bn assuming all the spectrum sells.

Ofcom has imposed limits on how much spectrum can be obtained by any one company, and carriers cannot exceed 37 per cent following the auction.

Due to this limitation, BT's EE network, for example, is restricted to 120MHz spectrum. For Three and Vodafone, it's 185MHz and 190MHz respectively. O2 has no limits imposed as it owns the least amount of spectrum of all carriers.

Carriers have responded to this development with understandable dismay. A BT spokesperson said: "We're disappointed the auction will now be delayed although we understand the unique circumstances. The auction and subsequent release of spectrum remains central to the future rollout of mobile networks and 5G. The economy's recovery from COVID-19 is dependent on resilient digital infrastructure and we urge Ofcom to resist any further requests for delays."

Ofcom's auction plans have proven controversial with carriers. Vodafone lobbied the government to switch from an auction format to set pricing. This, it said, was due to the relatively low ROIs for the mobile industry. O2 had also raised issues with Ofcom's plan to sell off fragmented chunks of spectrum, rather than contiguous slices, threatening legal action.

The Register has asked Three, Vodafone, and O2 to comment.

Updated at 14.02GMT on 26 January to add:

A Three UK spokesperson has sent us a statement:

"We believe that the auction should be suspended until the UK is well out of lockdown, transmission rates have been drastically reduced and stakeholders have greater confidence that the auction can be completed safely and without disruption. This is the only way to maintain the integrity of the auction process as we are concerned that COVID-19 will make it very challenging for organisations with less resource like Three to participate without compromising the wellbeing of our employees and our ability to bid effectively." ®

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