Ofcom unveils plans to avoid mobile ‘capacity crunch’
16 November 2012
- New mobile spectrum to avert a 'capacity crunch' as usage doubles
- Protective measures to maintain digital terrestrial TV
Ofcom today 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 today1. 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 frequencies2 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 agreed3, 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 5 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.
NOTES FOR EDITORS
- See Real Wireless report on techniques for increasing the capacity of wireless broadband networks.
- Frequencies reserved in future for digital terrestrial TV are likely to be in the 600 MHz band. Until any such migration takes place, in 2018 at the earliest, this band will be made available to other users, such as broadcasters of HD services on Freeview. The band might also be used by White Space Devices (WSDs) and wireless microphones. WSDs work by searching for unused gaps in the airwaves, called 'white spaces', which will exist between HD channels. These white spaces will be used to transmit and receive wireless signals, used for a range of applications such as broadband access in rural areas. Recycling spectrum in this way is a highly efficient use of a very limited resource.
- At the 2012 World Radio Conference earlier this year, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Northern Asia passed a resolution signalling an intention to allow the 700 MHz band to be used for mobile broadband. A final decision will be taken at the next World Radio Conference in 2015.
- For broadband delivered over telephone lines using 'digital subscriber line' (DSL) technologies, the modem sync speed is the downstream data rate at which the internet service provider's equipment in the local exchange sends data to the customer's broadband modem. In practice, the speeds achieved by the end user will be lower because some capacity is required for information that accompanies the data, and there may be network congestion. But while modem sync speeds do not directly reflect end user experience, they are a useful proxy for the state of broadband over the UK's telephone line infrastructure. This data differs from our regular Broadband Speeds research.
- A connection with a downstream speed of 30 Mbit/s or more.
- Ofcom's principal duty under the Communications Act 2003 is to further the interests of citizens, and the interests of consumers where appropriate by promoting competition. Ofcom is also required to secure the optimal use for wireless telegraphy of the electro-magnetic spectrum.
- Under section 134A of the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom has a duty to prepare reports for the Secretary of State on certain networks and services available in the UK every three years.