Ofcom unveils plans to avoid mobile ‘capacity crunch’

3 min read MSPs
Ofcom published plans to enable the release of new airwaves for future generations of mobile devices, which will help meet consumers’ growing demand for data on the move.

Alongside the announcement, Ofcom has published new data on the UK’s communications infrastructure, which shows that 20 million Gigabytes of data is now being consumed in a month over the country’s mobile networks – more than twice as much as last year (9 million Gigabytes).

That is the equivalent of downloading 5 billion music tracks. By 2030, demand for mobile data could be 80 times higher than today.

To help meet this demand and avert a possible ‘capacity crunch, more mobile spectrum is needed over the long term, together with new technologies to make mobile broadband more efficient. Ofcom is preparing plans now to support the release of spectrum for future mobile services, possibly ‘5G’, when the spectrum becomes available.

The plans aim to draw on the 700 MHz frequency band, which is currently used for digital terrestrial television, as part of future harmonised spectrum planning across Europe and the rest of the world. Releasing the new frequencies can be achieved without the need for another TV ‘switchover’.

It is important that different countries use the same frequencies of spectrum for mobile broadband to create economies of scale and widen the availability of handsets, which should in turn reduce prices for consumers.

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.

‘Our plans are designed to avoid a ‘capacity crunch’, ensuring that the UK’s mobile infrastructure can continue to support the inescapable growth in consumer demand and economic growth more generally.’

Maintaining digital television

Ofcom’s plans also seek to ensure the long-term future of digital terrestrial TV (DTT), which performs an important role in providing low-cost, near-universal access to the public service TV channels. This can be achieved by ensuring alternative frequencies are available for DTT when the next generation of mobile broadband is introduced towards the end of the decade.

The changes will require an international spectrum plan to be agreed, and work on this is unlikely to be complete before 2018. Over the coming years, Ofcom will plan and prepare to ensure the changes are in the best interests of UK citizens and consumers.

For the vast majority of viewers, moving DTT to different frequencies will require a simple retune of existing TV equipment. However, a small minority of consumers may need to change their roof top aerials – likely not before 2018. Ofcom plans to work from an early stage with aerial installation groups and retailers to minimise any impact on viewers.

Meeting the capacity challenge

The scale of demand for data in the UK is illustrated by Ofcom’s Infrastructure Report update, published today.

While the arrival of 4G mobile networks will provide much-needed new bandwidth, fixed networks are also developing fast to keep pace with consumers’ growing use of the internet and other data-hungry services like video on demand.

The report reveals that:

The average speed of a fixed-line internet connection4 in the UK has risen by 69% in just a year, from 7.5 Mbit/s last year to 12.7 Mbit/s.

Superfast broadband is now available to almost two thirds (65%) of premises, and 7% have taken the service up.

The average residential fixed broadband customer downloaded 23 Gigabytes of data per month in 2012, up from 17 Gigabytes in 2011, an increase of 35%.

The average mobile customer used 245 MBytes of data in the month, twice as much as in the year before.

Half of all data transmitted in the UK is consumed by a ‘hungry hardcore’ of surfers, who account for just 10% of internet users. Customers with slower connections use considerably less data.

Northern Ireland is leading the way in superfast broadband, achieving higher take-up (11.4%) and coverage (95%) than any other part of the UK.

Wireless hotspots revealed

Ofcom understands that future internet bandwidth will need to come from a variety of sources, including public Wi-Fi hotspots. For the first time, Ofcom has mapped the distribution of these hotspots, which allow people to access fixed-line internet on mobile devices.

There are now 16,000 Wi-Fi access points in places like cafés, transport hubs and other public spaces. However, consumers seem to prefer using their mobile network for internet access when out and about, rather than public Wi-Fi: around 25 times as much data is downloaded over mobile networks as over these Wi-Fi hotspots. This suggests there is an untapped opportunity for public Wi-Fi to help meet consumers’ growing thirst for data.

Mobile coverage up

Coverage of mobile broadband has improved over the last year. The Infrastructure Report shows the proportion of UK premises which cannot receive a 3G mobile signal (being in a 3G ‘not spot’) has fallen by a quarter, from 1.2% last year to 0.9%.

The proportion of premises receiving a 3G signal from all mobile operators has increased to 77.3%, up from 73.1% a year earlier. Mobile capacity and coverage will improve further following the auction of new 4G spectrum, as one of the 4G licences will require a service to be made available to at least 98% of people in villages, towns and cities across the UK.