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Ofcom plans to free up radio broadcast spectrum for the use of mobile broadband services in the UKREUTERS/Paul Hackett

UK telecoms and broadcasting regulator Ofcom plans to free up radio broadcast spectrum for the use of mobile broadband services in a move that should usher in cheaper and faster internet.

Mobile network operators will be offered radio spectrum in the 700MHz frequency band, which is currently used for digital terrestrial TV services (DTTV), such as Freeview. Ofcom plans to implement this by 2022, but is optimistic of completion by 2020.

Announcing the plans on 19 November, 2014, Ofcom said that the result of this process should be "consumers and businesses [getting] faster and cheaper mobile data services, while viewers can continue to enjoy the free-to-view TV services they value without another switchover."

Ofcom expects DTTV users to only be marginally impacted by the move, with the vast majority of viewers only needing to retune their existing TV equipment, while about 0.5% of households may need to change their roof-top aerials. Ofcom added that the aerial change is unlikely to be necessary before 2019.

"Demand for mobile data could be 45 times higher by 2030 than it is today. Mobile service providers will need access to more spectrum than they have now to support this growing consumer demand for internet on the move on smartphones and tablet devices" states Ofcom.

More broadband spectrum is good news

Responding to the announcement, Dominic Baliszewski, telecoms expert from the BroadbandChoices website, said mobile broadband users should see this as good news:

The decision to free up more frequencies for mobile broadband... will mean more capacity and better speeds. For customers, what this ultimately translates to is faster mobile broadband at lower costs.

This announcement will be of particularly good news to people in rural areas. The 700Mhz band is better at passing through walls and can travel further than other frequencies. The means that people in rural areas, or other areas with historically poor coverage, might stand to benefit the most from this announcement.

The real question is whether mobile broadband will ever replace fixed line broadband; with 4G customers already experiencing an average speed of 15Mbps (megabits per second), this is already good enough to serve most people's home broadband needs.

The limiting factors at present are availability, price and constraints on download limits - both of which will be addressed (at least in part) by the freeing up of the 700MHz band.

Freeing Up Radio Spectrum

Radio frequency spectrum is a finite resource and it is part of Ofcom's mandate to effectively regulate its usage.

Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive, said:

This is a crucial next step in the development of the UK's communications infrastructure. This decision ensures that we are making the raw materials available with which investors and companies can build the services which will support the digital economy of the future.

More spectrum will be available for mobile broadband where demand is especially high, but the UK will retain a competitive terrestrial television platform as well.

Aside from this announcement, Ofcom is working on releasing new spectrum at other frequencies that could also be used to meet the growing demand for mobile broadband services.

In October, potential bidders were invited to comment on proposals for Ofcom's auction of spectrum in the 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz bands, which is expected to take place in late 2015 or early 2016.