Steps need to be taken now to head off a looming “capacity crunch” on the UK’s mobile networks, says regulator Ofcom.
As more people use broadband-connected smartphones and tablets, the amount of data Britons consume on the move each month has hit 20 million gigabytes.
The main reason for the data explosion is users’ love of video, TV and films while on the move.
Without swift action, mobile networks will gradually grind to a halt, warned the agency.
If current trends play out, said Ofcom, demand for mobile data would grow by 80 times by 2030.
To cope with the data tsunami Ofcom has drawn up plans to release more radio spectrum and make the industry’s use of existing spectrum more efficient.
The 700MHz frequency band, currently used by digital terrestrial television, will be opened up to mobile services by 2018 as part of a global plan to harmonise frequencies for mobile users.
Digital television will eventually migrate to the 600MHz frequency under Ofcom’s plans.
Consumers worried that this will mean new set-top box equipment and yet more upheaval need not be alarmed, said Ofcom.
“This will not be a new digital switch over; all it will need is a simple retune,” said Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive. “It’s a migration.”
Initial industry concerns about the migration plans had “substantially diminished”, he added.
By making better use of the UK’s existing 16,000 wi-fi hotspots, which are significantly underused at the moment, and introducing new transmission and compression technologies, Ofcom believes there will be plenty of new capacity to cope with the expected increase in mobile data usage.
The mobile industry is currently collaborating on a new wi-fi protocol called PassPoint which will allow consumers to use one sign-in to join any public wi-fi network, wherever they happen to be.
Ofcom hopes this will encourage more mobile users to make use of the existing public wi-fi network and help lighten the load on mobile networks.
“The overall outcome for the UK, the economy, and consumers is a positive one,” said Mr Richards. “The public cost of this will be utterly marginal, but there will be a massive benefit to the public.”