Ofcom makes plans to avoid mobile 'capacity crunch'

18 January 2013 | Guy Matthews


The painful emergence of 4G services in the UK has been well reported. But Europe’s most competitive mobile market has, in other respects, just enjoyed a remarkable year – albeit one that hints at challenges that lie around the corner.

The British, it seems, just can’t get enough of mobile data. The country’s mobile networks are flooded with it, leading to talk of a major ‘capacity crunch’ if rates of consumption carry on at their present rate.

Ofcom has published new data on the UK’s communications infrastructure which shows that 20 million gigabytes of data is now being consumed per month over the country’s mobile networks. That figure is more than twice as much as it was the previous year, at a mere nine million gigabytes.

If rates of data usage carry on along this path, by 2030 demand for mobile data could be 80 times or more higher than today. Ofcom concludes that more mobile spectrum is needed over the long term, together with new technologies to make mobile broadband more efficient.

Ofcom says it is preparing plans now to support the release of spectrum for future mobile services, possibly amounting to what it is terming ‘5G’. The plans aim to draw on the 700MHz frequency band, which is used for digital terrestrial television, as part of future harmonised spectrum planning across Europe and the rest of the world. It also acknowledges that it is important for different European countries to use the same frequencies of spectrum for mobile broadband, to create economies of scale and to widen the availability of handsets, which should in turn reduce prices.

“Within the coming months we will hold the UK’s largest-ever auction of mobile spectrum for 4G,” says Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive. “However, that may not be enough to meet 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.”

Ofcom has also revealed that the UK’s fixed networks are developing fast to keep pace with growing use of data-hungry services like video-on-demand. The average speed of a fixed-line internet connection in the UK has risen by 69% in just a year, from 7.5Mbps to 12.7Mbps. Superfast broadband is now available to around 65% of premises, and some 7% have taken the service up.

But even taking account of current plans, is the UK’s fixed and mobile infrastructure ready for the next stage? Is the digital divide between well covered parts of the country and fibre-lite rural areas set to widen? Numerous questions remain that Ofcom needs to consider.

Guy Matthews can be contacted at: guy@transom-enterprises.co.uk