British telecoms regulator Ofcom has announced the start of a consultation on its plans to introduce coverage obligations as part of the upcoming sale of spectrum in the 700MHz band. Saying that it has a ‘duty to ensure the wide availability of communications services to citizens and consumers’, the regulator has claimed that current levels of mobile coverage are not meeting consumers’ needs, citing its ‘Connected Nations 2017’ report, which it said showed that coverage was particularly poor in rural areas. As such, in arguing that the technical characteristics of the 700MHz band make it suitable for improving mobile coverage, Ofcom has said it plans to attach coverage obligations to some of the licences that will be awarded.
Specifically, it has proposed setting three coverage obligations, one focusing on where people live – the ‘premises’ obligation – a second focused on improving outdoor coverage across the UK’s land mass, and a third, effectively placing more stringent obligations on boosting coverage at the ‘constituent nation’ level. As per the premises obligation, the successful bidder would be required to deliver good quality inbuilding coverage to 60% of the 200,000 residential and business premises in rural areas that Ofcom has predicted will lack good indoor coverage from any mobile operator at the time of the 700MHz auction, which is scheduled to take place in H2 2019. Meanwhile, the geographic obligations would require operators to provide good voice and data services across at least 92% of the UK’s total land mass, while also requiring successful bidders to improve the coverage they provide in each of the UK’s constituent nations. Operators would need to boost geographic coverage in England and Northern Ireland to 92%, while increasing it to 83% and 76% for Wales and Scotland, respectively. Ofcom has proposed that these coverage obligations should be met within three years of the licence being awarded.