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Ofcom delays UK 5G spectrum auction until March

The bidding process has been postponed once again as a result of the COVID pandemic

Ofcom has announced plans to delay the long-awaited 5G spectrum auction yet again as a result of the COVID pandemic. 

In August, the auction was confirmed to take place in January 2021 but the regulator has this week postponed the start of the bidding process until March.

In its announcement, Ofcom stated that it was “closely monitoring the coronavirus situation”, suggesting this was the cause of the latest delay. The reasoning was also cited by spectrum group director Philip Marnick back in August when he announced the January date.

The new March auction date could potentially also be delayed due to the pandemic, with Ofcom stating that it “will continue to monitor developments”.

IT Pro has reached out to Ofcom for additional information but has yet to receive a response from the regulator. 

The spectrum up for auction sits in two different frequency bands - 700 MHz and 3.6-3.8 GHz - the latter part of the primary band for 5G networks. The qualified bidders are confirmed to be EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone.

Commenting on the delay, a BT spokesperson said that the “the auction and subsequent release of spectrum remains central to the future rollout of mobile networks and 5G”.

The company, which owns EE, said that it’s “disappointed the auction will now be delayed”, although it added that it understands “the unique circumstances”.  

“The economy’s recovery from Covid-19 is dependent on resilient digital infrastructure and we urge Ofcom to resist any further requests for delays,” the BT spokesperson added.

However, a spokesperson for Three UK offered a differing view, saying that the company believes that "the auction should be suspended until the UK is well out of lockdown (...) and stakeholders have greater confidence that the auction can be completed safely and without disruption".

"This is the only way to maintain the integrity of the auction process as we are concerned that COVID-19 will make it very challenging for organisations with less resource like Three to participate without compromising the wellbeing of our employees and our ability to bid effectively," they added.

IT Pro also contacted O2 and Vodafone for comment and will update this story accordingly.

The bidding process for the spectrum auction had been plagued with delays since at least 2017. Three had previously attempted to have a 30% cap placed on the auction, a move that would have blocked larger providers, including EE, from bidding against smaller rivals.

However, following a High Court decision in December 2017 that ruled against Three, the case was ultimately sent to the Court of Appeal. The case was due to be heard over the 13 and 14 February 2018 with a swift deliberation which saw the decision upheld.

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