Insights Hybrid Sharing: Ofcom publishes vision for Upper 6 GHz spectrum


Ofcom has published a document setting out its vision for the future of the Upper 6 GHz spectrum, stating that it wants to see hybrid sharing between Wi-Fi and commercial mobile services. The document builds on a consultation in July 2023 and an update later that year on stakeholders’ responses, which highlighted “strong demand for using this spectrum”.

As Ofcom explains, spectrum is becoming increasingly crowded. The natural response, it states, is to “design for sharing and coexistence by default”, with a “sharing by design” philosophy built into future equipment standards. In the context of the Upper 6 GHz band, both mobile network operators (“MNOs”) and Wi-Fi networks want access to the band, although there is some uncertainty over the exact level of demand within both, and differences in how and where they would like to use it.

In order to address this, Ofcom proposes the development of a framework for sharing the band, “combining the best of what mobile and Wi-Fi can offer, and potentially providing a way of optimising use and adapting to changes in the relative levels of future demand between the two, including at a localised level”. The document details what Ofcom would expect from such a framework, setting out a number of factors that Ofcom considers to be important in assessing how to implement hybrid sharing.

Three factors in particular are highlighted as “most important” to Ofcom. First, any hybrid sharing framework should deliver the greatest overall benefits to consumers. Whilst managing potential clashes might be less attractive to Wi-Fi or MNO operators compared to being sole user of a band, Ofcom points out that the highest overall benefits to the consumer will be achieved if the sharing framework “can realise most of the benefits from both uses”. Second, any framework must be commercially attractive, given that mobile and Wi-fi sharing will require innovation and investment from the industry. Third, Ofcom states that “the sharing framework should enable coexistence with current users, allowing them to continue using the band where feasible”. However, it recognises that where consumer demand for mobile and Wi-Fi is very high, there might be a good case for changes so long as they deliver greater overall benefits to the consumer.

Two further “highly desirable” factors are also set out. First, the framework should allow for a phased approach given that some of the technologies needed for hybrid sharing may need time to be developed. Ideally, Ofcom states that there would be coexistence measures that could be implemented early in order to take advantage of using the spectrum in the short term, so long as it does not lead to ‘legacy issues’ that restrict the efficiency of sharing in the future. Second, the framework should be sufficiently flexible to balance adopting an internationally harmonised approach with recognising national or local priorities.

The document continues to set out “two possible elements that could form part of the sharing framework” and how they would align with the factors outlined above. First, it considers the option of splitting the Upper 6 GHz band into two parts: a priority portion for Wi-Fi, and a priority potion for mobile, with each allowed to deploy freely in its respective portions. For this to be effective, “sense and avoid” techniques would have to be implemented so that, for example, Wi-Fi could use the mobile priority portion of the band in locations where mobile is not deployed, and vice versa. The second option considered is an indoor/outdoor split whereby mobile would use the Upper 6 GHz spectrum for outdoor and some shallow indoor capacity. Resources would them be freed up so that other mobile bands could provide capacity in harder to reach locations indoors. Otherwise, Wi-Fi would have more spectrum resources indoors.

Looking ahead, the documents point to an Electronic Communications Committee Report on this topic being published in early 2025 which Ofcom hopes will inform the development of harmonised technical approaches and coexistence mechanisms, as well as encourage the development of sharing-native equipment. At the same time, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology is funding spectrum sharing sandboxes to March 2025, the results of which will inform the development of Ofcom’s approach to shared use of the band.

Meanwhile, Ofcom commits to consult before making any decision on the future use of the Upper 6 GHz band, and will publish a document in 2025 setting out further details about how it intends to make the band available in the UK.

To read the document in full, click here.