UK mobile phone operators could soon be able to run 3G services on frequencies reserved for 2G services, Ofcom said today. The change could mean better 3G coverage and lower costs for the public and would follow moves by other European countries to liberalise their 2G spectrums, according to a spokesman for the GSM Association (GSMA), a trade group for mobile phone operators.
Ofcom's move follows the expected relaxation of a longstanding EU restriction on how certain frequencies could be used.
A 1987 EU directive restricted use of the 900MHz and 1800MHz spectrums to second-generation services based on the GSM standard, which at the time was intended to foster growth of mobile communications across Europe by ensuring a large market for common hardware.
The European Commission has proposed allowing 3G in those spectrum ranges: it says the original directive is now stalling growth of 3G services.
The proposal should become policy by the end of the year once it is approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers, according to the Commission.
Operators across Europe have been running 3G services in the 2100MHz frequency band for several years.
But opening up the 900MHz spectrum is key, as the lower frequencies allow better penetration of buildings, Ofcom said. The signals also carry further, so in rural areas fewer mobile phone masts are necessary: Ofcom estimates that high-quality mobile broadband internet services could be provided with 10,000 fewer sites per operator.
In turn, consumers should see lower costs for 3G services, the Commission has said. Finland and France are already trialling 3G services in the 900MHz band, the GSMA spokesman said.
Market analyst Ovum estimates 300 million people will have 3G connections in Western Europe by 2012 if 3G is deployed at 900MHz and 2100MHz. That's compared to only 235 million connections if 3G is restricted to only 2100MHz. About 50 million have access to 3G today.
Operators will likely want to continue using the 2100MHz band, as it has a higher traffic capacity than the 900MHz band, and so is better for urban areas where there are more users.
In the UK, Vodafone and O2 use the 900MHz spectrum, but only for 2G services. Ofcom is suggesting letting the other operators - Three, T-Mobile and Orange - have access to that band.
The spectrum would be auctioned, with Ofcom awarding licences as soon as 2009 and services starting by 2010, the regulator said. Ofcom is also looking at removing some technology-specific restrictions from the 1800MHz and 2100MHz bands, which could happen next year.