Ofcom has announced its future plans for managing the radio spectrum, starting a fundamental liberalisation programme in the UK's airwaves.

The regulatory body intends to make sweeping changes into the way the spectrum has been managed for 100 years, practically regulating itself out of existence. It ultimately plans to open up about 70 percent to the free market, keeping strict controls over only portions with international concerns. The military also controls a significant proportion of spectrum (see our feature on Ofcom's liberalisation and spectrum-trading plans).

"The Review advocates a market-led approach, in contrast to the previous regime under which the regulator decided the type of organisation that should have access to specific parts of the spectrum, and how they should be used," Ofcom said in a statement. In the public review, the organisations involved "broadly supported" Ofcom's plans, the regulator said.

The changes are expected to be a boon for emerging technologies such as WiMax and Ultrawideband, which will benefit from an increase in unlicensed spectrum and the ability of licence holders to buy and sell licences on the open market, a practice called spectrum trading. Licences will also be made less technology-specific, allowing licence holders to use the spectrum for whatever purpose they like, Ofcom said - for example to provide 3G, fixed or mobile data services.

Liberalisation may be bad news for some big established players providing new generations of digital wireless services. Ofcom is planning special provisions to protect 3G service providers from full competition in order to allow the market to mature. Although the real reason is that the mobile phone companies paid the government £22.5 billion in August 2000 and the government is not keen on having to pay any of it back. GCap Media, the UK's biggest radio broadcaster, currently has an effectively exclusive deal on digital radio broadcasting, a position which could be threatened by liberalisation.

The WiMax Forum, a group of pro-WiMax industry players, praised the thrust of Ofcom's plan. "Ofcom’s intention to award spectrum on a technology neutral basis with the minimum of technical constraints necessary for sharing and compatibility is warmly welcomed by the WiMax Forum," said the Forum in a consultation response [pdf] published by Ofcom. "We believe this plan will be an important catalyst for a thriving broadband wireless access environment in the UK."

The Forum did, however, register "doubts" about the need for special provisions to protect the 3G market.

On the other end of the scale is Open Spectrum UK, an ad-hoc coalition of non-profit organisations engaged in community wireless networking. The group includes members such as Wireless London, the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) and the Community Broadband Network. Open Spectrum said it generally welcomes Ofcom's approach but criticised the relatively small amount of spectrum that will be added to the licence-free pot.

"Licensing is an 'interference by public authority' and as such it is permitted by the (European Directive on Human Rights) only for 'broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises' or when 'prescribed by law and…necessary in a democratic society…[for] public safety, for the prevention of disorder,' etc," Open Spectrum said in its consultation response [pdf], published by Ofcom. "When licensing cannot be justified by any of these exceptions, it must be considered a violation of human rights."

The ISP Association (ISPA) may be disappointed with Ofcom's plans. The body has called for spectrum to be dedicated for broadband Internet, in order to reduce interference problems - an approach at odds with the aggressive liberalisation on the way.

The full Spectrum Framework Review document is available from Ofcom's Web site. Ofcom is planning to publish an update on its plans for mobile telecommunications and fixed wireless broadband services later this summer.