Ofcom is aiming to clear 700MHz spectrum for mobile operators in a bid to avoid a capacity crunch amid surging data use.
The regulator revealed that 20 million GB of data is now being consumed per month, more than double the 9 million GB used in 2011. Estimates vary as to predicted data growth, but the most 'heroic' prediction, as Ofcom CEO Ed Richards put it, could be 300 times by 2030. The medium prediction is 30 times more data usage than now.
The 700MHz band is currently used for digital terrestrial television but Ofcom said this frequency could be cleared without the need for a new digital switchover. Only 0.1% of the population would have to change their rooftop aerials.
By clearing the 700MHz spectrum, Ofcom would be in a position to auction off 94Mz of spectrum, potentially in a 5G auction. The global market is shifting to 700MHz for mobile by 2018. It is already available for use in the Americas and Asia-Pacific but will become available after 2015 in Europe, Africa and North Asia, after those countries have agreed to use it. Ofcom said this would lead to much greater economies of scale among manufacturers and widen handset availability. It could ultimately lead to cheaper handsets for consumers.
Ed Richards 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.'
However, he added that spectrum alone may not be enough to satisfy future data use. He said public Wi-Fi hotspots were underused. Around 25 times as much data is downloaded over mobile networks than across the 16,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots.
Editor: Graeme Neill