Of­com sets Jan­uary date for 5G auc­tion amid net­work con­cerns

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - By Matthew Field

BRI­TAIN’S de­layed 5G spec­trum auc­tion will go ahead in Jan­uary de­spite calls for the process to be scrapped from mo­bile net­works amid the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

Matt War­man, the dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture min­is­ter, con­firmed yes­ter­day that the auc­tion would go ahead for the 700Mhz slice of mo­bile spec­trum, which is ex­pected to im­prove cov­er­age and speeds in ru­ral ar­eas.

Speak­ing at 5G World, part of Lon­don Tech Week, Mr War­man said a mas­sive pro­gramme of re­tun­ing TV air­waves had freed up band­width that could be used for 5G spec­trum. This had seen 20 mil­lion house­hold TVs switched on to lower fre­quen­cies.

“We have over­seen a quiet rev­o­lu­tion in the air­waves which will lead to bet­ter mo­bile cov­er­age for ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and un­lock new ways for 5G to boost busi­ness pro­duc­tiv­ity and im­prove peo­ple’s lives,” he said. But mo­bile op­er­a­tors, in par­tic­u­lar Voda­fone and Three, have been lob­by­ing against plans for the auc­tion from Of­com, which was de­layed from the spring.

The auc­tion is a com­pet­i­tive process where net­works bid for a share of mo­bile waves. Op­er­a­tors wanted the auc­tion scrapped and spec­trum sold at the re­serve price. Sources said they ob­jected on the grounds a bid­ding process may be dif­fi­cult due to Covid-19 and was nor­mally con­ducted in per­son in sealed rooms.

In­sid­ers also be­lieve the auc­tion will see as much as £500m ex­tra raised for the Trea­sury, which will be taken out of the net­works. One source said: “The lim­i­ta­tions of Covid-19 on an auc­tion bid team are not prac­ti­cal. We would have pre­ferred an al­lo­ca­tion; we have been clear in pub­lic and pri­vate.”

Robert Finnegan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Three, said: “While we recog­nise the pres­sures on the Trea­sury and ap­pre­ci­ate their sup­port to date, the Gov­ern­ment has missed an op­por­tu­nity to take a bal­anced ap­proach given the ex­tra costs faced by the mo­bile in­dus­try.”

A Voda­fone spokesman said while the com­pany would have pre­ferred that the auc­tion was scrapped, it was still ask­ing Of­com to con­sider act­ing on spec­trum frag­men­ta­tion.

An Of­com spokesman said: “Peo­ple and busi­nesses need faster, more re­li­able mo­bile con­nec­tions more than ever. So it’s vi­tal we move for­ward and auc­tion these air­waves as soon as pos­si­ble. We’ve con­cluded on the rules for the auc­tion, af­ter ex­ten­sive con­sul­ta­tion with in­dus­try.

“We are con­tin­u­ing to de­velop plans for con­duct­ing the auc­tion, mak­ing sure it takes place safely and se­curely, in light of the coro­n­avirus.”

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