Spectrum to be withheld for future inventions

Technologies that have yet to be invented may be reserved their own piece of spectrum when analogue television is switched off. Regulator Ofcom has said it could reserve spectrum specifically for as-yet-unimagined services.

Switch-off will occur in stages between 2008 and 2012, releasing a huge amount of very valuable spectrum useful to broadcasters, mobile phone companies and users of wireless sound and data services.

Ofcom has outlined its proposals for how the large pieces of spectrum to be released by analogue switch-off will be used. Almost all of it will be auctioned on the open market in a similar way to 3G spectrum in 2000.

Then the public purse gained from dot-com fever as telcos participated in a frenzied auction that drove the total paid to £22.5 billion. That sum is not thought likely to be raised again: Ofcom says that the spectrum in hand will create £5 billion to £10 billion of economic value over 20 years, so prices paid will be a fraction of that.

A portion, though, may be held back for services which do not yet exist. "Ofcom is consulting on whether to hold back a small amount of spectrum until after digital switchover to ensure that potential new developments in technology in the future – such as new low-power wireless uses – have access to UHF (ultra high frequency) spectrum," said an Ofcom statement.

As more and more services become wireless, spectrum is likely only to become more valuable. Ofcom has said that it will auction the spectrum and that it will sanction an after-market in traded spectrum. "Licences would be tradeable and liberalised to allow users the flexibility to decide what technology to use, what services to offer, and to change their use of the spectrum over time," said Ofcom.

Ofcom says that it will not allocate spectrum by deciding what is the most appropriate use. "To do so would distort incentives," said Ofcom, "and assumes that the regulator can make better decisions than the market, when in reality there is significant uncertainty and information is limited."

Ofcom said it would make some exceptions, reserving some spectrum for specific uses. One of these is local television, and it said it wants to divide a part of spectrum into 40 geographical segments to allow for separate broadcasts to 40 regions of the UK.

Consultation on Ofcom's spectrum proposals is now open.