Ofcom chief warns legal action could delay 5G deployments

By:
James Pearce
Published on:

BT's EE and Three UK have launched legal bids against Ofcom's spectrum auction rules, but CEO Sharon White has wrote delays could make the UK miss out on a "golden opportunity" for leadership in 5G

Ofcom CEO Sharon White has warned that legal bids from BT and Three UK over an upcoming spectrum auction could delay the deployment of 5G in the UK.

In an open letter, published by the Financial Times, White warned that litigation will “inevitably delay” the “golden opportunity for the UK to achieve leadership in 5G”.

The regulator has imposed restrictions on upcoming spectrum auctions that have led to two separate court actions from EE, which is owned by BT, and Three, part of CK Hutchison. The mobile operators have taken opposite stances over the action, with BT/EE claiming the restrictions are unfair, while Three has claims Ofcom's 37% cap will never be hit under current conditions.

Ofcom, which originally planned to auction some airwaves earmarked for 5G before the end of 2017, will now be face court proceedings, currently scheduled for three days from 5 December.

In the letter, White wrote: “The regulator’s job is to lay the foundations for companies to compete and invest. At Ofcom we take decisions in the interests of consumers and businesses, mindful of ensuring that industry has confidence to put money in and make a return.”

“Those foundations must underpin a level playing field. But in the mobile phone sector that does not mean everyone having the same share of the airwaves that power portable devices.”

Ofcom’s regulations limit mobile phone companies from owning more than 37% of usable spectrum available by 2020, with BT reportedly holding around 42% of the current amount. Vodafone holds around 29%, while Three owns 15% and O2 owns 14%. 

BT has already ruled out making bids in the 2.3GHz band in order to appease Ofcom, but has launched legal action partly in response to Three’s own judicial review, which it announced last month.

 EE initially said it would not dispute Ofcom’s rules because any legal action could delay future deployments, but given Three’s decision to go ahead with a review, EE also launched a legal bid.

White, in the letter, wrote: “BT/EE said its hand was forced by Three’s challenge and that its own appeal was therefore just a defensive move to cover Three’s case. But BT/EE’s appeal in fact goes much further and seeks to challenge the auction on a whole new set of grounds. 

“The courts have agreed to fast-track litigation, but the benefits for mobile users will inevitably be delayed. We planned to complete the auction this year. Now we will be in court in December. We believe that auctioning some 5G airwaves early would allow companies to start the vital groundwork to make 5G a reality as soon as possible.”

GTB has contacted Three and EE for their response to White’s letter. A spokesperson for Three said the operator did not have anything further to add, referring back to previous comments made by CEO Dave Dyson.

In comments made during the company’s latest financial results in August, Dyson said: “By way of context Ofcom has said it does not expect commercial deployment of 5G until 2020. The setting of standards for frequency bands will not be completed until 2019. It is a very safe bet that even with a delay of a few months the that even with a delay of a few months the spectrum auction will have taken place in good time so there will be no long-term negative impact on the rollout of 5G in the UK.”