5G regulation and law in United Kingdom

Information current as of 10 December 2019

What is the state of 5G deployment in the United Kingdom?

Summary of initial 5G deployment

In May 2019 EE launched the UK’s first commercially available 5G signals within six cities. EE added about 100 new sites per month and expanded 5G to 50 towns and cities by the end of summer 2019. EE expects consumer take-up to be gradual. In 2020, they will then be rolling out 5G across these UK cities in 2020: Aberdeen, Cambridge, Derby, Gloucester, Peterborough, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Southampton, Worcester. On 28 November 2019, EE treated UK commuters to the world’s first augmented reality gig streamed simultaneously over 5G to three cities, starring multi-platinum selling British band, Bastille. Using EE’s 5G network and cutting-edge technology from Nreal and Samsung, the gig was streamed in real-time to commuters in Liverpool and Edinburgh as a 5G 360-degree augmented reality experience live from Birmingham’s New Street station 

Vodafone, using Formula 1 Five-Time World Champion, Lewis Hamilton, as its 5g Ambassador, officially opened its new 5G service on 3 July 2019. It became the first company to offer unlimited data on both 5G and 4G with the launch of Vodafone Unlimited on the 10 July 2019. Vodafone will not charge a price premium for access to its 5G network and all unlimited SIMs are 5G ready. Vodafone has 5G within the UK in 31 places compared to EE in 41, Three in 1 and O2 in 6. 

O2 provides 5G in areas of Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Slough and Leeds. By the end of the year, it is aiming to bring its 5G network to parts of 20 towns and cities in the UK, before rolling out to a total of 50 by summer 2020. It is targeting transport hubs, key business areas and entertainment and sports venues, including The O2 and Twickenham Stadium. They will also be working with major UK businesses including Network Rail and Northumbrian Water Group to help build the 5G economy.

Hutchison (Three UK), launched its 5G network in August. Customers are enjoying on average speeds of 232 Mbps, with peak speeds of 1.1 Gbps, up from 30 Mbps they would have seen with their 4G devices.  The number of our 5G masts in London has doubled, covering hundreds of thousands of homes, and since the launch they have had 500,000 people across the UK do a coverage check for 5G Home Broadband. Hutchison (Three UK), the only network to have 100MHz of usable spectrum, the recognised standard required to deliver a full 5G service, switched on its 5G service. They debuted a supercharged 5G ‘living room of the future’ experience, in collaboration with designer Henry Holland on 27 September 2019. Three gave people a glimpse into a hybrid, physical-virtual living room showcasing how 5G will revolutionise the way we live today. It still plans on delivering 5G within further 25 towns and cities by the end of 2019.

In October 2019, Ofcom announced that it will release more mobile airwaves to help improve mobile services and enable more people and businesses to access 5G networks, through an auction in spring 2020. The responses to its proposals closed on 9 December 2019. It plans to publish its final decisions in early 2020, before starting the auction in the spring.

Background and timeline of deployment

In the fiscal budget presented in March 2016, the UK Government announced a new commitment that 750 MHz of valuable public sector spectrum in bands below 10 GHz will be made available by 2022, of which 500 MHz will be made available by 2020.

In February 2017, the regulator – Ofcom set a timetable for the launch of 5G in the UK by 2020.

On 11 July 2017, Ofcom published rules under which new spectrum in the 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz bands would be auctioned.

As part of the rules, Ofcom decided that a cap on aggregate spectrum holdings would apply, equivalent to 37% of all usable spectrum by 2020.

Three UK launched a judicial review legally challenging Ofcom’s decision in September 2017. EE also questioned the 37% cap and subsequently joined the legal challenge against Ofcom.

On 20 December 2017, following an expedited court process, the High Court upheld Ofcom’s decision and dismissed both claims. Three UK later appealed the decision but this was dismissed by the Appeals Court in February 2018.

On 24 January 2018, Ofcom confirmed the auction rules, which came into effect on 31 January 2018.

On 31 January 2018, Ofcom published draft spectrum licences for the 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz spectrum bands and requested bidders submit their bids by 8 February 2018.

On 27 February 2018, Ofcom announced that six pre-qualified applicants - Airspan Spectrum Holdings Limited, EE, Connexin Limited, Three UK, O2 and Vodafone would join the auction process in late March 2018.

In April 2018, Ofcom announced that EE, Three UK, O2 and Vodafone participated in the auction, with all successfully winning rights to portions of the spectrum on offer.

On 28 October 2019, Ofcom announced updates on proposals to auction new frequencies
Airwaves that will help improve coverage, boost network capacity and support rollout of 5G through an auction in spring 2020. The auction will involve companies bidding for spectrum in two different frequency bands: 

a.    releasing 80 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band. These airwaves are ideal for providing good-quality mobile coverage, both indoors and across very wide areas – including the countryside. Releasing these airwaves will also boost the capacity of today’s mobile networks – offering customers a more reliable service; and

b.    releasing 120 MHz of spectrum in 3.6-3.8 GHz band. These important airwaves are part of the primary band for 5G and are capable of carrying lots of data-hungry connections in concentrated areas.

How the 2020 auction will work

Ofcom plans on using a format known as ‘simultaneous multiple round ascending’. This approach, which is similar to its 2018 spectrum auction, involves two stages. It would work like this:

  • Principal stage. Companies first bid for airwaves in separate ‘lots’ to determine how much spectrum each company wins.
  • Assignment stage. Then there is a round of bidding to determine the specific frequencies that winning bidders will be allocated.

Winners of 3.6-3.8 GHz spectrum will have an opportunity within the assignment stage to negotiate their placements within the band among themselves. This will make it more straightforward for bidders to join together the new spectrum they win with their existing holdings, and potentially reduce the level of ‘fragmentation’ in the wider 3.4-3.8 GHz band.

NOTE: to maintain strong competition, Ofcom is still proposing to place a 37% cap on the overall spectrum that any one mobile company can hold following the auction (see below the same restrictions was placed in 2018 spectrum allocation). 

Restrictions on the bidders during the spectrum auction in 2018

Ofcom imposed two different restrictions on the bidders:

a.    A cap of 255 MHz on the “immediately useable” spectrum that any one operator can hold as a result of the auction. This cap prevented EE bidding for spectrum in the 2.3GHz band.

b.    A cap of 340 MHz on the overall amount of mobile spectrum a single operator can hold as a result of the auction. This cap amounts to 37% of all the mobile spectrum expected to be useable in 2020, which includes not only the spectrum available in this auction but also the 700MHz band.

Highlights of Operators’ activities post 2018 spectrum auction

As stated above, EE launched the UK’s first commercial 5G signal during May 2019. The variant of 5G that has been launched relies on existing 4G networks. EE has commenced publicly that standalone 5G variants will not be available until 2022, with more advanced variants offering ultra-reliable low-latency signals not coming until 2023.

Background and timeline of Operators’ activities

The UK’s first live 5G trial was successfully completed by EE in Canary Wharf, London in October 2018.

The trial reached speeds of 1.3Gbps in EE’s demo video, which is far faster than 4G.

EE, building on existing trials, has announced that the following six UK cities: London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester will have 5G coverage by mid-2019.

By the end of 2019, another 10 cities will get EE 5G coverage: Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and Bristol.

In October 2018, Vodafone completed a 5G trial in Manchester. It has commented that its trial in Manchester is now part of its “commercial network” and similar sites in five other UK cities would commence providing 5G coverage soon.

In early November 2018, Three UK commented that its 5G network preparations were well underway. The MNO signed an agreement with SSE Enterprise Telecommunications to connect to hundreds of BT points-of-presence across the UK, facilitating the connection of thousands of its mast sites to its core network.

O2 and Nokia, in paving the way for 5G deployment across the UK, rolled out two Massive MIMO (multiple input-multiple output) trials in November 2018. O2's test systems are based around the O2 arena in London and the MNO is also running other trials in locations around the UK. It has written to every company in the UK FTSE 100 inviting them to join tests of how the new mobile technology could help their businesses.

In 2017, Arqiva acquired licences for spectrum within the 28GHz band from managed services provider Luminet. In 2017, Arqiva and Samsung conducted the first 5G Fixed Wireless Access field trial of its type in Europe.  

Barriers to deployment

Fragmentation of spectrum holdings across multiple operators.

Lack of fibre optic backhaul to support the deployment of small cells.   Practical concerns around the current size of equipment required to support technologies such as Massive MIMO. 

UK’s MNOs are in consensus that the current planning restrictions were hindering a “fast and efficient” rollout of 5G technology e.g. Telecoms masts are currently not allowed to be more than 25m tall, or 20m on protected land, and may not be erected close to roads. On 27 August 2019, the government issued a consultation that closed on 4 November 2019. It may result in planning law reforms granting the UK operators the right to go beyond these limits This consultation sought views on the principle of amending permitted development rights for operators with rights under the Electronic Communications Code (Code Operators) to support deployment of 5G and extend mobile coverage, and the circumstances in which it would be appropriate to do so. The consultation also sought views on whether it is appropriate to impose specific limitations, conditions and restrictions on any amendments to permitted development rights to mitigate the impact of any new development

Concern and unresolved debate in relation to national security risks arising from the use of equipment from certain Chinese manufacturers.

Some of the MNOs have claimed that the US export ban on the Chinese telecom group Huawei may impact 5G deployment. The debate around Huawei has overshadowed the launch of 5G services in the UK as operators have lobbied the government not to ban the Chinese company’s equipment from 5G network builds. However, on 4 December 2019, Boris Johnson vowed not to involve Huawei in Britain’s 5G telecommunications networks if it compromised the country’s ability to work with close security allies, namely, USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. 


Ofcom is offering a grant funding scheme in conjunction with Equiniti Limited to compensate existing users of the 700MHz spectrum band, ahead of it being auctioned for use within 5G deployments.

Which telcos and communications players are launching 5G services?

The four existing MNOs: EE, Vodafone, Three UK and O2

Are there any public tenders for spectrum licences?

Yes, briefly as outlined above, on 5 April 2018, the regulator Ofcom announced the results of the first auction for both the 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz bands where the four MNOs obtained rights to the spectrum offered. The reported amount raised through the auction was £1.35bn, which apparently topped analyst estimates by more than a third.

On 28 October 2019, Ofcom announced plans for Auctions for other important frequency bands (such as 700MHz and 3.6GHz-3.8GHz) are expected to be held in 2020. Use of spectrum in the 700MHz range will be of particular importance for rural areas given its ability to propagate more effectively over longer distances.

In March 2019, Vodafone UK publicly commented on proposals by Ofcom to auction the 700MHz and 3.6GHz airwaves in ‘bundled packages’, arguing this could inflate spectrum valuations by forcing operators to bid for licenses they do not need. If legal proceedings are brought by Vodafone or another MNO, the UK's next spectrum auctions may be delayed.

What are the conditions?

For the 2.3Ghz and 3.4GHz auction, there were no coverage obligations. The Regulations contained:

  • An overall bid constraint to give effect to Ofcom’s decision to impose an overall spectrum cap of 340MHz on the amount of spectrum that any operator can hold which will apply in every principal stage round. The detailed implementation of this constraint means that the sum of bids (both new bids made in the round and standing high bids assigned at the end of the most recent round that are not superseded by new bids) needs to be equal to or less than the overall bid constraint that applies to each bidder.
  • Ofcom has amended a detail on the regulation relating to deposits during the principal stage, whereby Ofcom may require a bidder to top up its deposit to the level of its highest financial exposure from any previous round in the auction.
  • To provide certainty to bidders, Ofcom has also added a regulation to clarify how the award process would proceed in the unlikely event that the pre-existing licence holder were to be excluded. This applies only to the pre-existing licence holder, to which specific rules already apply in relation to bids it may make.

For auction of the 700 MHz band Ofcom is proposing to include coverage obligations.

Ofcom will require the winning bidders to:

  • Extend good, outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area within four years of the award.
  • Improve coverage for at least 140,000 homes and offices which they do not already cover.
  • Provide coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas.

What has the government said regarding spectrum licences for commercial use?

Ofcom has worked closely with other European spectrum regulators to identify bands that have the potential to be harmonised. Ofcom’s work in both the Radio Spectrum Policy Group (RSPG) and the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), has resulted in the identification of three bands to enable 5G in Europe:

  • 700 MHz;
  • 3.4-3.8 GHz, which has the potential to allow wider bandwidths; and
  • 24.25-27.5 GHz (the 26 GHz band), for ultra-dense very high capacity networks.

Ofcom’s principal duty concerning spectrum is to secure its optimal use. As part of this, they have authorised shared access to spectrum across many bands. Ofcom’s Spectrum Management Strategy highlights its increasing emphasis on spectrum sharing to address increasing demand.

Spectrum sharing can take place in a number of ways. Ofcom defines access to spectrum as relating to one of three main categories:

  • Crown access: accessed under the immunity the Crown has from requiring a licence.20
  • Space science: accessed without explicit need for a licence (licence exempt) or Crown immunity, as its use is either receive-only in the UK or transmissions from outer space.
  • Market access: authorised by Ofcom and available to the market, via licence exemption or licensed access.

Where Ofcom licenses spectrum use, access is provided through two main types of licence:

  • Ofcom Managed access: where use is authorised by standard licence products and where Ofcom is responsible for the coordination of individual assignments in the band. This includes some public sector use authorised by Wireless Telegraphy licences.
  • Block Assigned access: where Ofcom grants individual licences for a contiguous block of spectrum over a wide geographic area, e.g. auctioned spectrum licences. In contrast to managed access, Ofcom does not coordinate individual assignments and the technical coordination of use within the frequency block is the responsibility of the licensee.

Ofcom has also allowed greater flexibility for spectrum licensees to resell all or some of their allocated spectrum on commercially negotiated terms.

In November 2018, more spectrum in the 60 GHz frequency range was made available for companies to use without the need for a licence. These airwaves can be anyone, provided they meet the conditions of the licence exemption. Applications include private 5G networks, which may be of particular value within the manufacturing, industrial and medical sectors.

Are the rules for 5G already drafted, and if so, what do they say?

Yes, see above.

What are or would be the rules for granting competitors access to the new 5G networks, once they are deployed?

See above.

5G regulation and law in United Kingdom

Picture of Chris Watson
Chris Watson
Head of the CMS TMC Group
Anne Chitan
Anne Chitan
Global Co-Head of Communications, TMC