The recently announced MoD spectrum auction is the culmination of 10 years’ work, numerous reports and even more consultations — some of which I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with.

It’s taken a lot of effort to get to this point and, as one of the first countries to auction off public spectrum assets, it’s a process that is being closely watched both at home and abroad.

The details of the auction have already been covered in good detail here and here and — while what’s on offer clearly isn’t going to result in a new, nationwide mobile network — we’re likely to see it being used to add capacity to existing networks in busy city centres.

The spectrum to be auctioned has some associated and additional complexities for operators to contend with, including coordination with RAF and naval bases and a much smaller device ecosystem compared to 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz.

The 2.3 GHz spectrum will be adjacent to other MOD services. As a result, new mobile services will need to both protect these existing services and also manage potential incoming interference from MOD deployments, all without impacting the QoS for users.

The mobile operators will almost certainly put in bids nonetheless. Having invested hundreds of millions in purchasing 4G licenses just over two years ago that they are yet to recoup, investment in further spectrum rather than network rollout may be challenging for some mobile operators.

But if operators didn’t bid how else could it be used?

One potential model might be the ‘small cells as a service’ approach that has been discussed for some time, but as of yet has never really got off the ground. This would allow someone, potentially a provider with existing fibre assets, to offer a small cell network over a city centre or business district and charge operators for access. Given the challenges holding back urban small cell deployments, it’s a model that many are pushing for and the FCC’s move to promote shared access for small cells in 3.5 GHz may end up driving this model in the UK.

Businesses involved in smart city or vertical applications could also be interested, particularly in the 3.4 GHz band given the issues with mobile device compatibility. The 3.5 GHz spectrum could encourage new entrants or new services from existing fixed line players, however the business case for these models is not straightforward, as existing owners of spectrum in this band can testify.

With no coverage obligations and no focus on encouraging new entrants, it is difficult to predict how this auction will develop. The varied block sizes in each band of spectrum and a number of issues with coexistence may put off one or two of the established players that have other higher priorities, instead encouraging new entrants or business models from fixed-line operators. Regardless of the outcome it’s an exciting time for the industry and great to see the spectrum finally being released to the market after many years of hard work.

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