Given our increasing reliance on smartphones, and the 4G cellular network’s difficulty in providing rapid data transfers, the launch of 5G has been widely welcomed.
Although consumer uptake has been slow so far, there’s no question that the fifth generation of digital mobile communications will eventually revolutionise our way of life.
It will power Internet of Things devices, support autonomous public networks including self-driving vehicles, and ensure our phones are always connected – wherever we are.
To support 5G, industry regulator Ofcom will shortly begin a second round of auctions of available bandwidth, which the UK’s big four mobile networks can acquire and use.
But what does all this mean for consumers?
Getting your wireless crossed
To explain why the latest 5G bandwidth auction is so significant, we need to get technical for a moment.
Wireless data is transmitted to our phones and tablets from cell towers dotted around the country.
To avoid interference with other wireless data transfers (such as radio stations or emergency service radios), mobile data is transmitted at specific frequencies.
Radio frequencies are measured in hertz – the number of cycles per second.
As the number of cycles increase, the signal’s ability to cover long distances reduces.
The optimal framework for wireless cellular connectivity is therefore a mixture of lower and higher frequencies, within specific bands which won’t interfere with anything else.
Phones can latch onto lower frequencies in remote areas to maintain connectivity, and then jump onto to higher frequencies when they’re asked to download data rapidly.
This has been the main consumer selling point for 5G services. But until now, early adopters have been receiving a service across a single high-frequency band, in limited urban areas.
That’s because in the first round of 5G bandwidth auctions, the UK’s big four firms were competing to acquire a share of the solitary 3.4GHz band Ofcom had made available.
On that occasion, Hutchison 3G (parent owner of the Three brand) acquired more 3.4GHz bandwidth than O2, Vodafone and BT/EE combined.
Band of brothers
Next spring, Ofcom will simultaneously auction off portions of the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz spectrum bands.
Once operational, these split bands will finally give consumers access to a blend of higher and lower-frequency connections.
The big four networks will all acquire some coverage across both frequencies, but their share will depend on (a) how much they’re willing to bid, and (b) how much they already own.
No company will be able to acquire more than 37 per cent of the spectrum.
Ofcom engineered this into the auction process to prevent one firm buying all the available bandwidth, to prevent its rivals from competing.
Even so, next year’s auction could determine whether one network is able to offer a better service than its rivals.
If one firm wins the maximum 37 per cent, the others can only share 63 per cent between them.
Can I have my say on the auction?
Ofcom’s public consultation on the forthcoming 5G bandwidth auction is open to responses until December the 9th. You can express an opinion by clicking here.
It’s estimated that the auction could yield anywhere from £965 million to £2 billion for the UK Government, and it’ll form the basis of 5G connectivity for many years.
Given how ubiquitous 5G services are likely to become, and how heavily we’re expected to rely on them, it’s worth having your say on how the UK’s 5G mobile network takes shape.