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GSMA urges fresh action on 5G mobile spectrum

Mobile industry body says time is running out to ready enough radio frequency spectrum in the appropriate bands to account for the demands of 5G mobile networks

With one year to go until the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) which will set the agenda for mobile communications networks for years to come, the GSM Association (GSMA) has warned that governments and regulators need to do much more – and quickly – to capitalise on the potential of 5G mobile networks, or risk their countries being left behind.

Although many governments and regulators have already started to auction spectrum for 5G – including Ofcom – the GSMA said it was seeing substantial variation in how much spectrum is being assigned, the conditions imposed on it and cost of access. This meant that the speed, reach and quality of 5G was in danger of dramatic variance from country to country, it said.

“Operators urgently need more spectrum to deliver the endless array of services that 5G will enable,” said Brett Tarnutzer, GSMA’s head of spectrum. “Our 5G future depends heavily on the decisions governments are making in the next year as we head into WRC-19.

“Without strong government support to allocate sufficient spectrum to next-generation mobile services, it will be impossible to achieve the global scale that will make 5G affordable and accessible for everyone.

“There is a real opportunity for innovation from 5G, but this hinges on governments focusing on making enough spectrum available, not maximising auction revenues for short-term gains.” 

The GSMA outlined a number of key considerations for governments and regulators. Firstly, because 5G needs wider frequency bands to support gigabit speeds and huge amounts of traffic, the average operator is likely to need 80-100MHz of spectrum in prime 5G mid-bands, such as 3.5GHz, and an additional GHz in the higher-frequency millimetre wave bands.

It also urged governments and regulators to balance the spectrum being made available more effectively, with a good mix in the sub-1GHz band (to support mobile broadband and IoT services), in the 1-6GHz band (to support a mix of coverage and capacity) and above 6GHz (to support ultra-high speed services), which is vital to realising all the potential benefits.

Even higher-frequency bands – as high as 71GHz – will also be critical to enabling the fastest speeds, low-cost devices and international roaming.

The association also urged governments and regulators to steer away from artificially inflating 5G spectrum prices to generate extra revenue, because this would damage operators’ ability to invest and, ultimately, increase the cost of services to end-users, and to avoid setting aside spectrum for vertical industries, saying that sharing approaches such as leasing would be a better option.

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In the UK, the April 2018 spectrum auction organised by Ofcom saw a 150MHz slice of 3.4GHz spectrum go under the hammer, substantially below the GSMA’s estimated operator need. Of this spectrum, Vodafone won 50MHz, O2 and EE 40MHz, and Three 20MHz, raising £1.37bn for the public purse.

The regulator is currently facilitating access to the 3.6-3.8GHz spectrum – but as this is currently well in use in the UK for fixed links, satellite communications and wireless networks, operators will not be able to begin deploying services in those spectrum bands until the middle of 2020 at the earliest, with many existing licences running until December 2022.

When the UK’s four MNOs do get the go-ahead to run parts of their 5G networks in the 3.6-3.8GHz bands, Three is likely to be an early winner because an 84MHz block of that spectrum is owned by UK Broadband, which it bought in 2017. UK Broadband currently uses the spectrum to support a 4G data mobile broadband service for wholesale and channel partners, and the wireless internet service provider (ISP) Relish.

“Governments and regulators have a major role to play in ensuring that consumers get the best outcome from 5G,” said Tarnutzer. “Once spectrum is allocated to mobile at WRC, licensing that spectrum at a national level, as history has shown, can take up to 10 years. Therefore, it is essential that governments take the right action now.”

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