Signalling a new era

Ofcom tells forum ‘innovation not regulation’ must drive UK’s wireless communications.

Innovators rather than regulators should shape the future of wireless communications technology in the UK, according to a senior policy maker at Ofcom.

Graham Louth, director of spectrum markets at Ofcom, which regulates radiocommunications in the UK, said policy on spectrum management is ‘moving from command and control to a more market-based approach.’

Ofcom grants licences ranging from two-way radios for taxis to the giant 3G mobile networks operated by companies such as Vodafone.

The planned more liberal approach would mean that instead of tightly restricting the use of specific portions of the spectrum to individual technologies, Ofcom would give technology developers and service providers a freer hand in deciding what works best, where. The regulator would only step in if there was a major technical problem — for example serious interference with adjacent portions of the spectrum — or overwhelming public interest issues.

‘We don’t see the need to impose those constraints unless there is an interference dimension,’ Louth told an audience of wireless communications specialists in Cambridge this week. ‘We believe the right approach is to be technology-neutral.’

According to Louth, liberalisation and spectrum trading — allowing licence holders to sell on use of the bands to third parties —would be good for technology innovation.

‘You might see blocks of spectrum acquired by organisations that can see how they could transform it through a new technology. We would like to see that happen if it means valuable services become available to users,’ he said.

According to Louth, new technologies could also be developed by groups of manufacturers with a specific block of the spectrum in mind.

But he added that liberalisation of the spectrum would not lead to companies or organisations ‘owning’ blocks of the spectrum. They would hold licenses for rights of use, as at present, with ultimate control remaining with the government.

Louth was speaking at a conference organised by the Communications Innovation Institute, a technology and strategy research initiative that includes Cambridge, MIT and UCL.

The event — ‘An Open Future for Wireless Communications?’ — showcased a range of technology projects that offered a taste of how communications networks may operate a decade or more down the line.

Initiatives include ways to seamlessly link the various elements that will make up future 4G mobile communications networks, reducing the handover problems that currently afflict users when they move between one access technology and another. Researchers believe this will become increasingly significant over the next few years when the automotive industry will pack vehicles with an increasingly diverse array of communications technologies.

Another research focus is on the use of optical fibre to send high-quality broadband wireless signals over long distances.

For example, one CambridgeUniversity project is developing the use of semiconductor optical amplifiers to transmit high-quality wireless signals up to 150km. Without optical amplification the maximum transmission distance is around 50km.

According to the research team, this could allow demanding signals such as high-definition TV or the WiMAX wireless data service to be sent from a city centre to a network of suburban antennas, which would then transmit them to individual homes.