The changing spectrum landscape: WRC19, 5G and beyond

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The 4-yearly ITU World Radio Congress (WRC’19) which sets world policy on radio spectrum, most critically 5G this time, has just ended. What agreements were reached, and what do they mean for traditional telcos, new telcos, telco-sector vendors and regulators?

Spectrum concerns reach far beyond traditional telecoms

We last had an in-depth look at spectrum policy and its implications for telcos almost three years ago, in our report on 5G spectrum in January 2017. (Please refer to that report for general background information on the ways that spectrum is organised and allocated for mobile and wireless networks).

That report has proven prescient:

“5G development and deployment is largely happening between WRC-15 and WRC-19. By November 2019’s event, a lot of spectrum decisions may have been taken locally, early networks deployed, and thus given to ITU’s delegates as a “fait accompli”. As well as bringing in many new radio technologies and innovations, the new focus on IoT, “network slicing” and industry verticals complicates matters still further. For instance, many of the most-touted new use-cases are likely to occur indoors, or on industrial sites – not outside “in public spaces” where mobile operators can exert most control and oversight. Potentially, new models such as shared licensing of spectrum are needed, with large companies running their own on-site private 5G networks”.

This has largely been reflected in the outcome of events. Today, we have had early launches of around 50 5G networks worldwide, from the US to South Korea to Ireland. These use a mix of bands that are about to be discussed by ITU at WRC, and others that were not even supposed to be in consideration, such as the US and Korean 28GHz band. Meanwhile, as we recently discussed in our Private/Vertical Networks report, various countries have started awarding spectrum to “non-public networks”, on a localised basis. The US CBRS band, the German industrial 5G allocation and various different approaches taken in the UK exemplify this. This raises the question of whether the current ITU processes are really “fit for purpose” for the modern wireless industry. Especially given the growing levels of geopolitical controversy in many areas of the economy, we may see the WRC process becoming increasingly side-lined in future policy discussions.

Given that ITU’s World Radio Congress has recently concluded – and has been attended or closely watched by the telco and wider spectrum community, this seems to be a good time to revisit the topic – which has also cropped up in our recent work on 5G launches, indoor wireless, and private networks.

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What WRC really means

Access to spectrum is critically important for 5G. That is widely understood in the telecoms industry. But often, there is little awareness of how and why spectrum is allocated to mobile use, which bands make most sense, or what else radio frequencies are used for.

Not all bands are created equal – so when someone says that 100MHz or 1GHz is being made available for 5G, it’s important to understand which frequencies are being discussed, with which conditions – and what else is currently using that allocation.

The negotiators are governments, not companies, so telcos and vendors are represented indirectly through many layers of advisors, delegations and lobbyists.

Countries and regions adopt ITU and localised regulatory stances based on national priorities, champion exporters or intellectual property owners, visions of the future around social inclusion, climate change and the UN Development Goals, and how various sorts of wireless applications (and thus spectrum) can improve humanity.

Sometimes there are trade-offs between tangible (economic) outcomes and less-tangible social or geopolitical impact.

The main telecoms-related battle at WRC centred on what high-frequency mmWave bands should be dedicated to 5G, and under what conditions. This involves a mix of technical arguments (“does X cause interference for Y?”) and politics. But the other agenda items also relate to how telcos should be seeing themselves, and positioning for roles in what STL calls the Coordination Age.

While 5G has extremely important roles to play in coordination, so do other wireless technologies – and telcos and policymakers should be embracing them, their applications, and their own spectrum needs – rather than just putting all their future eggs in a still-hypothetical 5G basket. MNOs should resist hype from vendors proposing 5G as the solution to all problems, and the source of all new revenue opportunities. It’s important certainly, but that is a major – and naïve – overstatement.

Recent developments: What has changed?

What has changed since early 2017? A few items of particular interest for the telecoms industry have risen up or suddenly appeared on the regulatory/spectrum agenda:

  • We have had numerous trials and commercial launches, and hence some more hard data on 5G performance in different spectrum domains, and increasingly more realistic views on the abilities and constraints of antennas, devices, core networks and concepts like network-slicing. While there’s still a lot of hype – and capabilities will obviously improve over time – the practicalities have become more visible. In particular, the early focus of 5G on mmWave bands (especially in the US) has stepped down a notch, with the recognition that low- and mid-band spectrum will be the main driver for 5G usage and value. Even the GSMA’s 15-year forecasts – discussed later in this report and which we think are methodologically questionable – only put mmWave as accounting for 25% of the total forecast GDP contribution from 5G. The true number may well turn out be closer to 10%, with even that biased towards the years from 2029-2034.
  • The global regulatory community seems to have accepted that various forms of spectrumsharing, sub-leasing and local licensing is important for some mobile bands – at least in developed markets. The complex economics of building multiple competing cellular networks, the difficulty of completely clearing incumbents from new bands, and the desire for industry/rural/vertical/metro -specific cellular or other networks is driving this. (While this is a hotbed of regulatory action, it is rather less relevant to WRC – the ITU mostly determines usecases for spectrum such as cellular vs. satellite, but it is up to local regulators to decide how best to parcel up licenses and authorisations within those constraints).
  • The main exception is around fixed wireless access (FWA) which is turning out to be one of the main commercial focuses of mmWave spectrum, both for 5G and Wi-Fi type network technologies, along with urban densification. Various new initiatives and services have launched, and considerable innovation is ongoing. We will be looking more closely at FWA in a future report in the Network Futures research stream. (It is worth noting that a large amount of FWA is not mmWave-based, but in sub-6GHz bands, especially in the 3-5GHz range, which gives it much better propagation characteristics and a certain level of indoor penetration).
  • Geopolitics has become more important, especially in the US vs. China (and to an extent, vs. Europe) trade war and battles about network security and strategic advantage. That is filtering through to spectrum policy in unexpected ways – especially as the US currently seems to see itself having home advantages in mmWave, Wi-Fi and cloud-based platforms. Europe, which has numerous densely-populated member states, and is home to a number of major satellite companies, seems much more equivocal about mmWave 5G, and is more hesitant about dedicating more bands to it – especially given possible knock-on effects on earth/weather observation and its effects on climate science. China is somewhere in between, advocating various mmWave bands for 5G use, but currently focused on the mid-band, including (controversially within the spectrum community) the 4.9GHz range.
  • Various industries and new sectors have woken up to the IoT future, and are demanding their own spectrum resources, either for private 4G / 5G or alternative dedicated sector-specific approaches. A May 2019 meeting convened by European regulatory agency CEPT on Spectrum for Industries featured diverse interest groups, from railways to aviation to medical sectors. At that event, telecom/mobile was “just another vertical”. While some of the use-cases described could possibly be satisfied with variants of 5G (or Wi-Fi) others clearly have very special requirements that need different technologies, and probably different (dedicated or shared) spectrum allocations
  • There has been growing coordination – and better lobbying – from new and existing groups to counter some of the 5G hyperbole. The satellite industry in particular has been pushing back, often cleverly embracing the cellular industry by pointing to ways it can integrate with, and complement, terrestrial cellular networks. (As long, of course, as the mobile industry doesn’t steal its spectrum for ground-based uses). The automotive industry has been arguing about flavours of V2X technology based on variants of WiFi and/or cellular.
  • Internet-era companies have entered the spectrum fray in a major fashion. Google is a big fan of dynamic spectrum regimes like CBRS and seems to want “spectrum-as-a-service” to become reality, aided by cloud and AI platforms. It’s also a noted fan of satellite and balloon-based wireless, through O3B and Loon. Amazon also seems keen on CBRS and is closely watching international developments. Facebook has been pushing its Terragraph 60GHz FWA technology, and also catalysing many other developments through its TIP (Telecoms Infrastructure Project) work. Microsoft is still arguing for TV White Space and other dynamic approaches, especially in the developing world. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX wants to launch a massive LEO (low earth orbit – maybe 200-400km altitude compared to 36,000km for geostationary satellites) constellation called Starlink for satellite broadband globally. All these initiatives have spectrum angles, plus asking ITU for orbital slots in some cases.

Behind all this, there are other application and political drivers of spectrum policy and allocation mechanisms, some of which relate to telecoms and some of which are more distant:

  • Near-insatiable demand for consumer mobile broadband capacity, especially in the 5G era
  • Similar insatiable demand for Wi-Fi and other unlicensed, simple data networks with different power and range levels.
  • Political desires for better rural cellular coverage, satisfying industrial requirements for private networks, encouraging innovation, productivity and maintaining national security and critical infrastructure
  • Desire for better connections for smarter cars, ships, planes and trains – both for passengers and for the transport systems themselves
  • Innovation in satellite communications, which is especially relevant for remote and island communities, but which is potentially becoming more “mainstream” with the imminent arrival of huge new constellations of low-orbit birds.
  • More requirements for spectrum for scientific and medical uses, especially relating to climate monitoring and weather-forecasting, as concern grows about the environment.
  • Continued use of spectrum for non-communications uses, drones and “high altitude platform” connectivity, aviation radar and beacons, GPS / GNSS signals, short-range sensors, maritime functions and so on.

WRC’19 is a microcosm – spectrum issues are much broader

This report looks at three areas that reflect the changing spectrum landscape, and how the telecom/mobile industry participates in it:

  • The current World Radio Congress (WRC19) that took place in Egypt during October and November, convened by the ITU (International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the UN). This updated the global harmonisation rules called the Radio Regulations, including defining new dedicated bands for mobile/cellular use. The main telecoms interest related to 5G-suitable bands, but we argue it should also be looking at other wireless applications, in order to satisfy a wider range of future “Coordination Age” opportunities than cellular alone can cover.
  • The growing demands for cellular-suitable spectrum by enterprises and other groups outside the traditional MNO world (also “non-public networks”), typically for private 4G or 5G networks, or various new types of wholesale. This is somewhat separate to the WRC process, although once suitable cellular spectrum is identified, governments can allocate it to enterprise or local use, rather than national telcos, if they choose.
  • Innovation outside the cellular industry, driving extra spectrum demand from satellites, transport and utility wireless, Wi-Fi, LPWA and various other use-cases.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • What WRC really means
    • Recent developments: What has changed?
    • WRC’19 is a microcosm – spectrum issues are much broader
  • Spectrum for 4G / 5G
    • Is mmWave 5G spectrum a red herring?
    • Implications for the Coordination Age
    • WRC-19 process and structure
    • How ITU and WRC work
    • Spectrum, WRC and The Great Game: Why telcos need to care
    • WRC: Other issues and debates
    • How important is WRC and harmonisation in future?
  • Beyond WRC: Other spectrum issues and debates
    • New mobile spectrum conditions
    • Local, dynamic and vertical spectrum
    • Secondary spectrum markets
    • Spectrum for Wi-Fi
    • Satellites and HAPs
  • Conclusion

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