21 March 2009

Low-Power GSM in the UK

Back in April 2006, the UK spectrum regulator, Ofcom, did something very rare these days: they auctioned off new spectrum in a standard GSM band.  Specifically, Ofcom auctioned off 12 national licenses in the top 6.6 MHz of the DCS1800 band.  The lucky winners and winning bids are listed on that link, but I'll repeat them here:

  • British Telecommunications PLC £275,112
  • Cable & Wireless UK £51,002
  • COLT Mobile Telecommunications Ltd £1,513,218
  • Cyberpress Ltd £151,999
  • FMS Solutions Ltd £113,000
  • Mapesbury Communications Ltd £76,660
  • O2 Ltd £209,888
  • Opal Telecom Ltd £155,555
  • PLDT Ltd £88,889
  • Shyam Telecom UK Ltd £101,011
  • Spring Mobil AB £50,110
  • Teleware PLC £1,001,880
A national DCS license for less than US$100k.  Damn.  (I bet COLT felt like chumps when they saw that they were spending something like 10x the typical winning bid, too.)

The catch is that transmitted power is limited to 200 mW and mast heights are limited to 10 meters AGL for outdoor installations.  It seems to me that the 200 mW limitation seems overly conservative, given that a typical GSM handset can put out a full Watt, but Ofcom wrote up a report justifying these limitations on the grounds that they were required for limiting interference with other cells.  Clearly, from the assumptions of the report, Ofcom expects these licenses to be used to provide high capacity over small areas, with each licensee having non-exclusive access to the full 6.6 MHz spectrum.  Otherwise, it would have made more sense to give each licensee exclusive use of a more limited bandwidth at much higher power levels, even if that meant fewer licenses.

So I'm assuming this is all about fill-in pico-cells, but maybe I'm wrong.  I'd love to hear reports of what the license holders are actually doing with this spectrum.  I've also heard of similar low power cellular in the Netherlands.  I can't find as much information on that, but welcome any reports of similar openings in other countries.


  1. Mapesbury are trying to run a mini-telco marketed at recent immigrants, with some interesting technology (mesh network!) but they are having some regulatory issues with regard to termination - OFCOM insists that they charge a termination fee based on their costs, which means that they are essentially subsidising the 5 main mobile operators.

    I'm not sure how well it works; they don't have national roaming outside their footprint, and "cellular that doesn't really work" has never been a good sell.

  2. I've learned a little more about the Mapesbury situation. The law requires other carriers to provide interconnection, but it does not require them to give access to their HLRs. So the incumbent carriers refuse to connect the Mapesbury core network to their HLRs. This makes it impossible for Mapesbury to authenticate or route inbound calls for roaming subscribers.

    I'm surprised that's legal, because for a mobile network the basic interconnect isn't useful without the HLR access. This kind of anti-competitive behavior is sad and shameful.

  3. Cable and Wireless are using theirs for their FMC product.


  4. Yeah no one has done anything with it of use as yet, C&W have sold to Tesco in UK for use in their stores. I imagine they gave it away with a network sale though as I know this is their only reference of any size. Teleware have only a couple of low end references which could have been covered with standard wireless house phones.

    And the biggest loser in the bid wars (Colt) does not even have a product as yet.

    The rest I have no idea.

    A White Elephant maybe????

  5. Is anyone in a position to provide an update on the UK situation? Along with several thousand young and not-so-young people, I will be at CoCamp this August (an international co-operative camp hosted by the Woodcraft Folk), in the UK but with participants from many countries. Many, many people will have mobile phones, but most will be on (expensive) international roaming. It would be a perfect setting for an OpenBTS setup, with lots of young techies keen to learn as we go along too. But we'd need some hand-holding to get us through the licensing and related issues. Anyone in a position to offer some guidance?

  6. Nick -

    As far as I know, OFCOM does not have any kind of reasonable experimental licensing process, so the only way you could operate the type of network you describe would be with the cooperation of a license holder.

    -- David

  7. C&W are continuing to make steady progress on FMC. In addition to Tesco (which is a very large deployment and wasnt given away for free as suggested above), they also use it for all of their own staff and they do have some other deployments e.g. for a large Ericsson office in the midlands. Work has recently started on a rollout for another big customer over the last few weeks.