Ofcom gives away radio spectrum for free

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Ofcom is preparing to hand out 15MHz of abandoned radio spectrum right next to the 3G frequencies for nothing, despite the same frequencies currently fetching millions elsewhere in Europe.

The slice of spectrum in question stretches from 2010-2025MHz, which sits between the uplink and downlink frequencies currently in use by mobile 3G services.

The telecoms regulator has been caught between the Government's Digital Britain dictates and legal wrangling that has kept its own auction of frequencies mired in controversy.

Those auctions were primarily for 200MHz of spectrum around 2.6GHz, but also included low-frequency bands freed up by the analogue TV switch-off and the 15MHz sliver at 2010MHz. Ofcom had no choice but to remove the 2010MHz from the proposed auction when the Digital Britain report made no mention of it in its plans for the auction of frequencies.

And with still no clarity on the matter, and the frequency continuing to remain unused, the regulator has decided to hand it out for nothing to wireless camera operators, who already operate in the frequencies above, on a six-month rolling contract until a more permanent decision can be taken.

The picture in the UK is in sharp contrast to Germany, for example, where the 2010MHz slice of spectrum is still very much in play as part of a group of frequencies currently being auctioned off.

The largest chunk of spectrum is in the 2.6GHz bands set aside for the expansion of 3G and LTE services but along with the 2010MHz sliver, also includes frequencies at 1.8GHz and the most sought-after frequencies, in the 800MHz band inherited from switching off analogue TV services.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the total value of bids were already in excess of 3 billion by the close of bidding yesterday, and it's the 2010MHz sliver in particular that seems to be attracting bidder interest right now, with bids having now exceeded 5 million.

The UK was initially poised to be the first major market in Europe to open up additional spectrum via auction in 2008, but one delay after another has sidelined the plans, with the target now to complete the auction before the 2012 Olympics.

Ofcom has laid out its reasoning for releasing the spectrum in a consultation document, and is inviting responses on the longer-term future of the band until 21 June.