Is Europe Aligned with Global 5G Spectrum Policy?

New spectrum bands have historically been a catalyst and rationale for a new cellular generation

New spectrum bands have historically been a catalyst and rationale for a new cellular generation 

Three spectrum bands have been identified by European regulators for the introduction of Fifth Generation Mobile Network (5G) licensing, but they are not globally harmonised and not available throughout Europe. This note looks at the linkages between bands and generations and asks whether there are benefits or issues in coupling 5G so strongly in Europe to the availability of new frequencies.

 Spectrum allocation is critical for Mobile Network Operators (MNO). Increasingly, spectrum ownership is proportional to network capacity. New spectrum bands have historically been a catalyst and rationale for a new cellular generation – for example the 2.1GHz band for 3G and the 800MHz band for 4G. While many expect 5G to spread across many of the spectrum bands used for mobile communications, there has been a clear message at a European level from the Radio Spectrum Policy Group (RSPG) and the Commission about the spectrum for 5G where three bands have been identified for initial deployment.

1. The 700MHz band to provide good coverage.

2. The 3.4-3.8GHz band to provide capacity in dense areas.

3. The 24-28GHz band to provide ultra-fast and very low latency capabilities.

There is reasonable global alignment on most of these, except the millimetre wave (mmWave) band where the US has selected 28GHz and other regions may follow suit.

There are risks and advantages in coupling a new generation to a new frequency band. Historically, new bands have been needed when there was insufficient spectrum to clear frequencies in existing bands. A small number of dedicated bands also allowed equipment vendors to concentrate on these, ensuring relatively early availability of equipment and handsets from a range of sources. However, if bands are not available in some countries then this can prevent new generations from emerging. Some have attributed the relatively late deployment of 4G in Europe to delayed auctions of the 800MHz spectrum, often caused by the need for band clearance. (However, this “late” deployment does not appear to have caused any harm, with countries rapidly catching up once spectrum was available.)

In the case of 5G, coupling the new generation to new bands might be both unnecessary and risky. It might be unnecessary because the need for new spectrum to enable the introduction of new technology has weakened. Operators have a range of bands and are often re-farming spectrum from one generation to another so might find it relatively easy to introduce 5G as they are doing so – for example moving direct from 3G to 5G in the 2.1GHz bands. Also, it is currently expected that 5G will initially be deployed in “non-standalone mode” as part of a 4G carrier and hence within 4G spectrum.

It might be risky to link 5G to new bands because there is no widespread consensus within Europe on the clearance and auctioning of the candidate 5G bands. The 700MHz band has already been auctioned in Germany and France with 4G equipment being deployed in these bands. Other European countries need to move TV transmissions from the band and have differing timescales to do so. Plans for the 3.4GHz band are similarly varied. Some countries have previously auctioned these bands for Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) and may find it difficult to clear them (although it may be that the FWA operators are willing to trade their spectrum to MNOs). Other countries are planning to release bands in stages at various times. Differing decisions are being made as to whether to concentrate on 3.4-3.6GHz or look to a wider release of 3.4-3.8GHz. 

Hence, there will not be the wave of auctions across Europe that took place for 3G and 4G. Spectrum availability will vary dramatically country-by-country and in many cases 4G will be widely deployed in these bands, with MNOs unlikely to want to rapidly re-farm to 5G unless there are compelling advantages. MNOs are often in pressing need for 4G spectrum to meet growing capacity demands, and so more inclined to put any new spectrum into rapid use for 4G. 

A lack of clarity around which bands are used, how 5G will be deployed, whether wide bandwidths will be needed and so on will result in delay, lack of equipment availability and possible consumer detriment if 4G becomes capacity constrained in the process. A clearer position would be to state:

1. Any spectrum will be auctioned as soon as it becomes available with no particular intent for any given technology, allowing 4G to be deployed where needed.

2. 5G is expected to be deployed alongside 4G and hence no dedicated spectrum is needed. This could happen across multiple frequency bands.

3. If broad carriers prove attractive the market can assemble these and so auctions will not be delayed to aim to realise them.

All of this suggests 5G will not be like previous generations in many ways. Spectrum policy needs to be re-thought on this basis.

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About the Author

Professor William Webb - BEng, MBA, PhD, DSc, DTech, CEng, FREng FIET, FIEEE 

Contributing Analyst - Horizon Research and Market Analysis

Director - Webb Search and CEO: Weightless SIG 

William is a Director at Webb Search Consulting, a company specialising in providing the highest level of advice in matters associated with wireless technology and regulatory matters. He is also CEO of the Weightless SIG, the standards body developing a new global M2M technology. He was President of the IET – Europe’s largest Professional Engineering body during 2014-2015.

He was one of the founding directors of Neul, a company developing machine-to-machine technologies and networks, which was formed at the start of 2011 and subsequently sold to Huawei in 2014 for $25m. Prior to this William was a Director at Ofcom where he managed a team providing technical advice and performing research across all areas of Ofcom’s regulatory remit. He also led some of the major reviews conducted by Ofcom including the Spectrum Framework Review, the development of Spectrum Usage Rights and most recently cognitive or white space policy. Previously, William worked for a range of communications consultancies in the UK in the fields of hardware design, computer simulation, propagation modelling, spectrum management and strategy development. William also spent three years providing strategic management across Motorola’s entire communications portfolio, based in Chicago.

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