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5G deployments will need new allocations of radio spectrum, particularly to achieve promised speeds, and target new IoT use-cases. However, the official process for releasing new frequencies is slow and cumbersome. Some countries may short-circuit the process. At the same time, the rationale for new sharing mechanisms, that allow industrial and vertical players to acquire spectrum for their own networks, outside of MNO control, is growing. What should telcos do?
Why does spectrum matter?
Radio spectrum is a key “raw material” for mobile networks, together with evolution of the transmission technology itself, and the availability of suitable cell-site locations. The more spectrum is made available for telcos, the more capacity there is overall for current and future mobile networks. The ability to provide good coverage is also determined largely by spectrum allocations.
Within the industry, we are accustomed to costly auction processes, as telcos battle for tranches of frequencies to add capacity, or support new generations of technology. In contrast, despite the huge costs to telcos for different spectrum allocation, most people have very little awareness of what bands their phones support, other than perhaps that it can use ‘mobile/cellular’ and WiFi.
Most people, even in the telecoms industry, don’t grasp the significance of particular numbers of MHz or GHz involved (Hz = number of cycles per second, measured in millions or billions). And that is just the tip of the jargon and acronym iceberg – a full discussion of mobile RAN (radio access network) technology involves different sorts of modulation, multiple antennas, propagation metrics, path loss (in decibels, dB) and so forth.
Yet as 5G pulls into view, it is critical to understand the process by which new frequencies will be released by governments, or old ones re-used by the mobile industry. To deliver the much-promised peak speeds and enhanced coverage of 5G, big chunks of frequencies are needed. Yet spectrum has many other uses besides public mobile networks, and battles will be fierce about any reallocations of incumbent users’ rights. The broadcast industry (especially TV), satellite operators, government departments (notably defence), scientific research communities and many other constituencies are involved here. In addition, there are growing demands for more bandwidth for unlicensed usage (as used for WiFi, Bluetooth and other low-power IoT networks such as SigFox).
Multiple big industries – usually referred to by the mobile community as “verticals” – are flexing their own muscles as well. Energy, transport, Internet, manufacturing, public safety and other sectors all see the benefits of wireless connectivity – but don’t necessarily want to involve mobile operators, nor subscribe to their preferred specifications and standards. Many have huge budgets, a deep legacy of systems-building and are hiring mobile specialists.
Lastly, parts of the technology industry are advocates of more nuanced approaches to spectrum management. Rather than dedicate bands to single companies, across whole countries or regions, they would rather develop mechanisms for sharing spectrum – either on a geographic basis, or by allowing some form of “peaceful coexistence” where different users’ radios behave nicely together, instead of creating interference. In theory, this could improve the efficient use of spectrum – but adds complexity, and perhaps introduces so much extra competition than willingness to invest suffers.
Which bands are made available for 5G, on what timescales, in what type of “chunks”, and the authorisation / licensing schemes involved, all define the potential opportunity for operators in 5G – as well as the risks of disruption, and (for some) how large the window is to fully-monetise 4G investments.
The whole area is a minefield to understand – it brings together the hardest parts of wireless technology to grasp, along with impenetrable legal processes, and labyrinthine politics at national and international levels. And ideally, it is possible to somehow to layer on consideration of end-user needs, and economic/social outputs as well.
Who are the stakeholders for spectrum?
At first sight, it might seem that spectrum allocations for mobile networks ought to be a comparatively simple affair, with governments deciding on tranches of frequencies and an appropriate auction process. MNOs can bid for their desired bands, and then deploy networks (and, perhaps, gripe about the costs afterwards).
The reality is much more complex. A later section describes some of the international bureaucracy involved in defining appropriate bands, which can then be doled out by governments (assuming they don’t decide to act unilaterally). But even before that, it is important to consider which organisations want to get involved in the decision process – and their motivations, whether for 5G or other issues that are closer to their own priorities, which intersect with it.
Governments have a broad set of drivers and priorities to reconcile – technological evolution of the economy as a whole, the desire for a competitive telecoms industry, exports, auction receipts – and the protection of other spectrum user groups such as defence, transport and public safety. Different branches of government and the public administration have differing views, and there may sometimes be tussles between the executive branch and various regulators.
Much the same is true at regional levels, especially in Europe, where there are often disagreements between European Commission, European Parliament, the regulators’ groups and 28 different EU nations’ parliaments (plus another 23 non-EU nations).
Even within the telecoms industry there are differences of opinion – some operators see 5G as an urgent strategic priority, that can help differentiation and reduce costs of existing infrastructure deployments. Others are still in the process of rolling out 4G networks and want to ensure that those investments continue to have relevance. There are variations in how much credence is assigned to the projections of IoT growth – and even there, whether there needs to be breathing room for 4G cellular types such as NB-IoT, which is yet to be deployed despite its putative replacement being discussed already.
The net result is many rounds of research, debate, consultation, disagreement and (eventually) compromise. Yet in many ways, 5G is different from 3G and 4G, especially because many new sectors are directly involved in helping define the use-cases and requirements. In many ways, telecoms is now “too important to be left to the telcos”, and many other voices will therefore need to be heard.
- Executive Summary
- Why does spectrum matter?
- Who are the stakeholders for spectrum?
- Spectrum vs. business models
- Does 5G need spectrum harmonisation as much as 4G?
- Spectrum authorisation types & processes
- Licensed, unlicensed and shared spectrum
- Why is ITU involved, and what is IMT spectrum?
- Key bands for 5G
- 5G Phase 1: just more of the same?
- mmWave beckons – the high bands >6GHz
- Figure 1 – 5G spectrum has multiple stakeholders with differing priorities
- Figure 2 – Multi-band support has improved hugely since early 4G phones
- Figure 3 – A potential 5G deployment & standardisation timeline
- Figure 4 – ITU timeline for 5G spectrum harmonisation, 2014-2020
- Figure 5 – High mmWave frequencies (e.g. 28GHz) don’t go through solid walls
- Figure 6 – mmWave brings new technology and design challenges