Spectrum - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

1  Introduction

What is spectrum?

1.  The "spectrum" referred to in this Report is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum which is usable for radio wave transmissions, and is also referred to as "the radio spectrum". It is made up of a range of radio frequencies, from extremely low (3 hertz (Hz)) to extremely high (300 gigahertz (GHz)). Television, radio, mobile phones, mobile internet services and other wireless devices such as radio microphones all rely on being able to use sections, or "channels", of the spectrum in order to function. Spectrum is a finite resource and, if usage of it becomes too concentrated, users will experience interference and interruptions to the service.

2.  Spectrum is measured in bands of megahertz (MHz). The term "bandwidth" refers to the range of frequencies in a particular band. Spectrum has different properties depending on its frequency. Low frequencies travel much further than high frequencies and so are useful for covering rural areas, although they cannot carry as much information. Higher frequencies do not travel as far, but are more suitable for areas of high usage such as cities.

3.  The spectrum between the frequencies of 300 MHz and 3 GHz, which lies somewhere in the middle of the usable spectrum range identified above, is known as the "sweet-spot" because of its suitability for a variety of applications including mobile communications and broadband. It is also internationally harmonised for mobile service use, meaning mobile users on a network using this spectrum have uninterrupted coverage when crossing international borders. Spectrum use across the bandwidths is shown in the chart below:

How spectrum is allocated and regulated

4.  50% of spectrum holdings is currently allocated for use by public sector bodies, for example for defence, aviation, shipping and the emergency services. In using this spectrum they are subject to inter-locking international regulatory frameworks set by, among others, the International Telecommunications Union and the Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations.

5.  Overall UK spectrum allocation is shown in the chart below:

6.  Commercial spectrum holdings are allocated and managed under a separate regulatory regime, made necessary by the existence of so many competing uses and users. Policy responsibility for this specialism was transferred from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in January 2011, although DCMS does not manage commercial spectrum directly. Subject to a power of direction by the Secretary of State, the allocation and regulation of spectrum is the responsibility of Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industry.

7.  The allocation of spectrum is managed by means of licences. Prior to 1998, the then regulator issued licences for specific technologies and purposes on the basis of an assessment of their social and economic usefulness. This was very much a "command and control" model, whereby the regulator managed all spectrum usage. Licences issued under this regime were subject to fees to cover administrative costs only. The Wireless Telegraphy Act 1998 enabled the conduct of auctions as a means to grant licences. The first auction took place in 2000 and, since its formation under the Communications Act 2003, oversight of the auctions has passed to Ofcom. It acts as the competition authority and conducts assessments to ensure that the auctions themselves do not distort the market. Ofcom's approach has been gradually to liberalise spectrum allocation, removing auction and licence constraints wherever possible and allowing the market greater freedom to determine spectrum usage rather than determining usage itself.

8.  Ofcom's principal duties as set out in the Communications Act 2003 are to "further the interests of citizens and consumers and to secure the optimal use of spectrum".[1] Ofcom does not have a statutory obligation to secure the greatest financial return from spectrum auctions but notes that "we believe that a well-designed competitive auction is very likely to achieve value for money for tax payers".[2]

9.  As well as allocating spectrum through auctions, Ofcom also regulates the use of spectrum by the commercial sector. It identifies cases of interference (two or more users of the same part of the spectrum disrupting one another); illegal broadcasting (such as pirate radio); poor use of transmission equipment (such as unfiltered taxi-cab radios); and unlicensed wireless devices, and it has powers to take action in such cases. Ofcom also co-ordinates international agreements for spectrum use with neighbouring countries.

1   Communications Act 2003, section 152 Back

2   SP16 Ofcom written evidence Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 3 November 2011