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Improving Mobile Coverage – Ofcom’s proposed approach

Improving Mobile Coverage – Ofcom’s proposed approach

  • United Kingdom
  • Technology, Media and Telecoms

10-05-2018

Current levels of mobile coverage and connectivity are struggling to meet consumer needs and demands, especially in the most rural areas of the UK. Ofcom, as part of its efforts to achieve more consistent network coverage and connectivity, has responded to these concerns by issuing a recommended way forward which would enable consumers to benefit from the use of mobile repeaters on a licence exempt basis where certain conditions are met. Device manufacturers are being encouraged by Ofcom to submit consumer installed repeaters with detailed specifications and characteristics that are not going to cause undue interference so as to be able to authorise their use on a licence exempt basis.

What?

Mobile signal repeaters are radio devices that transmit and receive wireless signals and are therefore governed by the provisions of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 (“WTA”). Under the WTA it is an offence to establish or use a wireless telegraphy station, or to install or use wireless telegraphy apparatus, except under or in accordance with a licence or where an exemption applies. As an example, mobile handsets are forms of wireless telegraphy apparatus but these devices do not require a licence as there is an exemption in place for their use on certain frequencies provided they conform with applicable interface requirements issued by Ofcom.

Unlike mobile handsets, mobile signal repeaters are not currently exempt from the WTA licensing requirements. Therefore, it is at present only possible for network operators to provide and install these devices under the terms of their spectrum licences. Ofcom regularly investigates potential breaches of the WTA where it believes that repeaters are being used unlawfully. However, Ofcom is keen to understand the circumstances in which greater coverage can be achieved with the aid of licenced consumer based repeaters. It has recognised that this structure is potentially harmful to the improvement and availability of mobile coverage and allowing repeaters to be licence exempt, under certain conditions and standards, would help to create a legitimate retail market for consumer installed repeaters, and could drive down costs associated with improving coverage and connectivity.

Ofcom has therefore sought opinions on the possibility of repeaters being licence exempt to achieve greater network coverage and, following its recent consultation, has set out how this can be realised.

How?

Ofcom recognises that consumers being able to install their own repeaters can help to improve and extend mobile coverage and connectivity, particularly indoors , in-vehicle and on trains and in rural areas, whilst at the same time potentially driving costs down in the market. However, consumer installed repeaters have historically been known to cause interference with existing licensed networks as they have been used on incorrect frequencies and power levels (amongst other reasons), hence Ofcom wishes to extend WTA licence exemptions to ensure that consumer repeaters do not compromise existing networks whilst aiming to enhance coverage and connectivity.

In order to achieve mass consumer use of repeaters within the requirements of a licence exemption, Ofcom proposes to enable consumers to utilise mobile repeaters without causing interference for other users, through a standardisation process. Ofcom intends to achieve this by requiring stakeholders to submit consumer installed repeaters along with detailed descriptions and specifications regarding how they will mitigate interference to Ofcom for approval.

Ofcom has identified a number of repeater features that could significantly reduce the amount of interference caused by repeaters, these include: (i) only amplifying the mobile channel being used and not the other mobile channels; (ii) automatically switching the repeater off when not in use or if the repeater starts to self-oscillate or malfunction; and (iii) adapting the transmitted uplink power of the repeater to the minimum needed to make a reliable connection. Where these requirements are met there is an increased likelihood of a repeater not causing undue interference and therefore capable of being made licence exempt.

Further to the above requirements, in order to meet the requirement under the WTA to be licence exempt, the repeaters would have to: not cause undue interference with wireless telegraphy; not have an adverse effect on technical quality of service; not lead to inefficient use of the part of the electromagnetic spectrum available for wireless telegraphy; or endanger safety of life. Ofcom also considers that it may also be necessary to register the location of the device on a data base in order to licence exempt the consumer use of repeaters, but more detailed specifications such as location will require further technical work by industry stakeholders.

Importantly, it should be remembered that the introduction of licence exempt use of repeaters will not take away Ofcom’s ability to investigate under the WTA where repeaters are being used unlawfully or outside of the new specifications proposed by Ofcom.

Rosie Wallace

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