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Shared Access – Driving Innovation in the UK with Local Spectrum Licencing

In a bid to support innovation, Ofcom, the regulatory authority in the United Kingdom, have set about issuing two new licensing options to make available underutilized radio spectrum.

In one of our previous blogs, my colleague Gavin Mitchell discussed the significance of 5G within private networks and as such, touched on the issues with allocating radio spectrum to these types of networks. In this blog, I wanted to pick up on this and review Ofcom’s current strategy in terms of both Shared and Local Access licencing.

Back in 2019, Ofcom published a statement setting out two new licencing approaches to make it easier for more people and businesses to use radio spectrum to support both growth and innovation across a range of sectors such as manufacturing, enterprise, agriculture, mining and health etc.

These are:

  • Shared Access Licence – which supports access to up to four new different frequency bands capable of supporting mobile communications.
  • Local Access Licence – provides access to previously licenced frequency bands in locations where the current licensee is not making use of this radio spectrum.

Shared Access Licence

Currently, Ofcom has made available four different spectrum bands for the shared access licence, and these are commonly referred to as; 1800MHz Shared Spectrum, 2300MHz Shared Spectrum, 3.8-4.2GHz and the Lower 26GHz bands. These are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1 - Shared Access Licence Bands

Table 1 – Shared Access Licence Bands

 

Within the identified spectrum bands, there are two types of licence; Low Power and Medium Power. Ofcom envisage that the low power licence will be used by industrial and enterprise networks (private networks) and be capable of supporting both voice and data applications in and around their sites. Medium power licences on the other hand are targeted towards FWA (Fixed Wireless Access) deployments in rural areas or alternatively, agriculture / private networks spread over a much larger area.

 Low Power Licence

Under this licence, Ofcom will permit users to deploy as many base stations as they require within a circular area with a radius of 50m, providing them a degree of flexibility dependent upon the local environment. As this type of licence could well be deployed indoors, this approach is akin to being able to move a Wi-Fi access point around one’s house to ensure it provides optimum coverage. Where greater coverage is required, multiple licences may be issued.

Figure 1 illustrates two possible deployment scenarios; one simple and the second slightly more complex involving multiple licences.

Fig 1 - Low Power Licence – Deployment Scenarios

Fig 1 – Low Power Licence – Deployment Scenarios

 

Not surprisingly, the maximum base station power is limited to 24dBM for both the 1800MHz and 2300MHz spectrum bands whereas for the 3.8-4.2GHz band, it is limited to 24dBm for carriers less than or equal to 20MHz wide and 18dBm / 5MHz for carriers greater than 20MHz wide. Finally, the lower 26GHz spectrum band is limited to 23dBm.

Medium Power Licence

This type of licence is aimed at organizations that require longer transmission ranges and those who do not need to move the location of the base station after installation. As such, it is generally limited to rural areas providing connectivity to farmers or to support FWA deployments and rural broadband. In this scenario, the licence will permit a single base station, but this can connect to either fixed or mobile / nomadic terminals and support both voice and data applications.

Fig 2 - Medium Power Licence – Deployment Scenario

Fig 2 – Medium Power Licence – Deployment Scenario

 

Given the deployment scenario envisaged by Ofcom, the maximum permitted transmit power for a medium power licence is limited to 42dBm.

What is particularly surprising however is the fees Ofcom will charge for these licences. These currently range from £80 per annum for a 2 × 3.3MHz / 10MHz channel to £800 for a 100MHz wide channel.

Local Access Licence

The second type of licence is that enabling organizations and enterprises to gain access to radio spectrum previously allocated / licenced to the mobile service providers who may not in fact be fully utilizing it throughout the entire country. Thus, if this spectrum is not being deployed in a specific location, then organizations can approach Ofcom and request a local access licence and make use of it. Clearly this is to maximise the use and thus efficiency of this limited and valuable resource.

To date, the local licence is available for any frequency band covered by the Mobile Trading Regulations 2011, which currently includes the 800, 900, 1400, 1800, 1900, 2100, 2300 and 2600MHz bands, all of which are widely used by the mobile technologies of 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G. The licences will generally be applied for a period of three years and cost £950. However, not surprisingly, the licence will be limited to a specific location / service area, radio frequency and power.

What will be interesting to see over the coming years is how many organizations take up these licences to either support their private network deployments or perhaps, in a bid to drive superfast broadband, take on the traditional fibre providers and begin deploying 5G FWA. 5G has clearly been promoted as an enabling technology for a wide range of verticals but in the end, it still needs radio spectrum to be able to operate. Perhaps this flexible approach will help to drive the technology in the UK. As ever, time will tell.