A meeting of UK government and telecoms industry officials has given the green light to build third-generation (3G) mobile networks in Europe, and raised the possibility that a sixth licence could be sold in the UK.
The World Radio Communications Conference in Istanbul, which ended last week, concluded that the amount of radio spectrum for 3G IMT-2000 phone licences should be increased. Third-generation networks will enable mobile multimedia and faster internet access.
Erkki Liikanen, European Community (EC) Commissioner responsible for enterprise and information society, said: "Precisely because radio spectrum is the backbone for a wide range of economically important activities, as evidenced by the recent auctions in the UK of IMT-2000 licences, the EC should ensure that the implementation of relevant policies are not hindered by a lack of radio spectrum."
The winning of an extra 160Mhz of spectrum, over and above what had been expected for 3G mobile phones, has raised eyebrows. The extra 160Mhz will be split among member states, and the EC is preparing a communication ready for publication in July that will address the spectrum issue.
Feasibly, should the UK government decide to bid for some of the extra spectrum, there would be enough extra bandwidth to create a sixth 3G mobile phone licensee.
Five bidders - TIW, Vodafone, BT3G, One 2 One and Orange - currently hold UK licences after bidding between £4bn and £5.96bn in an exhaustive 149-round auction that generated more than £22.48bn in revenue for the government. Between them, the quartet will use 140Mhz of spectrum.
A sixth licence, granted on the same terms as three of the lower-bandwidth licences, would require only an additional 25Mhz, less than a sixth of the extra available to European Union members, and would no doubt raise further billions for the Treasury.
A Department of Trade and Industry spokesman was keen yesterday to stress that any such sixth licence would not be granted for some considerable time, if at all, and certainly not until an extensive period of public consultation had taken place.
Indeed, following the controversial auction process, it would be a major shock if any such licence would be made available for some years.
Conference resolutions also resulted in allocations of spectrum for the EC satellite radio navigation system, Galileo (an alternative to the US Global Positioning and Russian Glonass systems); increased satellite broadcasting capability across Europe; the introduction of satellite-based internet broadband; and the introduction of wireless multimedia local-loop services via terrestrial and satellite infrastructures.
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