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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 November, 2004, 08:17 GMT
New rules for Britain's airwaves
View across the Lake District
Spectrum changes could bring broadband to remote areas in UK
One of the UK's key natural resources is to undergo a big shake-up.

Radio spectrum plays a vital role in broadcast media and telecommunications, as well as being essential to emergency services and air traffic control.

Regulator Ofcom is now planning to loosen control of the spectrum, allowing it to be traded on the open market for the first time in 100 years.

It hopes this approach will lead to greater efficiency and more innovative uses of radio frequencies.

Trading spaces

"We are turning 100 years of regulation on its head," said an Ofcom spokesman.

"In the past we have had a command and control approach in which we hold the keys and dole them out to people we think deserve it most," he explained.

"The new approach is that we are not going to say who should use it or tell them how to use it," he said.

The new approach will allow companies to trade licences to use different parts of the spectrum among themselves as well as developing new services for existing spectrum they own.

It could lead to greater broadband wireless internet access in remote areas of the UK and faster speed wireless links in towns and cities.

But the system will not be a free-for-all.

Ofcom will initially look at changes on a case by case basis and will require a type of planning permission of the airwaves to make sure issues such as frequency interference are not a problem.

Currently about a third of the radio spectrum is owned by the military. Of the rest, Ofcom plans to open up three-quarters of it by 2010.

Some of the spectrum, about 20%, will remain under close Ofcom control because the sectors it supports are so important.

Ofcom is also planning to increase slightly the amount of the radio spectrum that is completely unlicensed.

3G difficulties

In the past government control of spectrum has been criticised as inefficient.

The auction of spectrum for third generation mobile services saw operators paying billions to get their hands on licenses - an investment that they are now struggling to make profitable.

Ofcom says it is more than aware of the problems 3G has created for mobile operators.

"We are very mindful of their situation and that they have invested a huge amount of money in 3G," said an Ofcom spokesman.

"We are talking to them on a regular basis and future proposals will take into account a number of issues affecting a variety of stakeholders," he added.

Ofcom is due to publish a consultation document on the issues surrounding 3G and wireless broadband in December.

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