The UK government has completed a four-year, £350-million infrastructure programme to clear the 700 MHz spectrum band to boost rural 5G and 4G coverage.
The band was previously used for digital terrestrial TV broadcast (Freeview), along with professional radio microphones used in music studios, theatres and outdoor events.
The newly cleared radio waves will be used to accelerate the rollout of 5G and to increase existing 4G capacity, giving the network greater mobile coverage, reach, and reliability.
The move needed 20 million homes to retune their TV equipment to receive TV channels on lower frequencies, with the final wave completing the move in August.
Because the 700 MHz spectrum band is relatively low frequency, it is ideal for carrying mobile signals over long distances and into buildings, making it particularly useful for rural use.
The move was confirmed by Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman speaking at the 5G World event on September 3.
He said: “The smooth and successful completion of this massive infrastructure project ahead of schedule and under budget is a huge testament to the collaborative efforts of our partners.
“We have overseen a quiet revolution in the airwaves which will lead to better mobile coverage for rural communities and unlock new ways for 5G to boost business productivity and improve people’s lives.”
The project has added 18% more capacity for mobile services. Ofcom will auction off 80 MHz of the now free spectrum in January 2021. The group will impose a 37% cap on the overall spectrum that any one mobile company can hold following the auction in order to protect competition in the UK’s mobile market.
Philip Marnick, Spectrum Group Director at Ofcom, said: “This is a major milestone for improving mobile services across the UK. It’s been possible thanks to the meticulous planning and hard work from a range of organisations – all working together to make sure this huge project ran smoothly and minimising any disruption to TV viewers.
“The airwaves will now be available to use immediately after our upcoming spectrum auction, bringing better mobile and innovative new services a significant step closer.”
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In order to clear the airwaves, around 1,000 workers from organisations including Arqiva, Ofcom, Digital UK, Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited (DMSL) and the multiplex operators worked for over two million hours. More than 1,200 television transmitter sites were adapted as part of the work.
The programme was originally expected to be completed at the end of 2021 at a cost of £400 million. The project was therefore completed ahead of a schedule and under budget.
The project was funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.
The UK still suffers from a range of ‘not-spots’ – areas of little to no mobile coverage – especially in rural areas.
Around 70% of UK firms have said they experienced areas with either no mobile coverage by any operator or with some coverage but not from all networks.
However, the Scottish Government previously criticised freeing up and auctioning off the 700 MHz band for 5G use as it was not “sufficiently ambitious” for Scotland, nor for the rest of the UK.
The UK government provided half of a £1 billion investment to provide 95% of Britain’s landmass with 4G coverage by the end of 2025.