3G services may soon be allowed on the radio spectrum currently being used for 2G communications, after the European Commission officially backed the scheme.
Two bands of spectrum — at 900MHz and 1800MHz respectively — were set aside in the 1980s for use by the emerging 2G/GSM mobile-phone market. However, since 3G/UMTS became a reality earlier this decade, many users have switched over to the new standard, which operates at the higher-frequency 2100MHz.
This development has reduced the demand for the lower frequencies, and some mobile operators have been arguing for some time that those spectrums should "refarmed" for 3G services. Those operators have pointed out that lower frequencies allow the signal to be transmitted over greater distances and have suggested that, because 3G infrastructure has been deployed mainly in urban areas where the maximum return on investment can be made, refarming would allow greater use of 3G "mobile internet" services in rural areas.
However, one issue remains unresolved in the refarming debate. O2 and Vodafone use 900MHz for their GSM services, while T-Mobile and Orange use 1800MHz. The smallest UK operator, 3, has no GSM spectrum at all. Because lower frequencies transmit further, the EC's proposals have the potential to give O2 and Vodafone the chance to have greater 3G coverage, at a lower cost, than their rivals. 3 stands to be the most disadvantaged network as it has no GSM spectrum to refarm.
Neither Orange, T-Mobile nor 3 had responded to a request for comment on the EC's proposals at the time of writing.
Even more space could become available for 3G services next year when Ofcom auctions off 192MHz of spectrum around the 2.6GHz frequency. However, that spectrum could also be used for alternative mobile broadband services, like mobile WiMax. Pending a formal green light from the European Commission, Reding's proposals on refarming should be in place by the end of this year.