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UK regulator gives green light to 5G mmWave development

Amid concerns by potential service providers and technology firms that the UK is in danger of falling behind other countries in enabling next-gen mobile services, Ofcom opens up over 6GHz of mmWave radio spectrum for mobile technology

In a decision that will delight the technology industry as well as a nascent local provider market eyeing up opportunities on new services that are now on the table, UK comms regulator Ofcom has announced that almost a year after it began a consultation process to make a large amount of radio mmWave spectrum available for use by mobile technology, including 5G, it is to make over 6GHz of mmWave spectrum available across the 26GHz and 40GHz bands.

In May 2022, as it revealed its proposals to open a consultation, Ofcom said its principal aim was to enable opportunities for a wide range of users and applications across the country to access mmWave spectrum for new use cases that had the potential to deliver significant benefits by enabling large increases in wireless data capacity and speeds. 

At the time, Ofcom added it recognised that mass-market applications for mmWave spectrum were still at an early stage worldwide, but believed in the potential that the mobile band could bring in areas such as autonomous driving, immersive video and healthcare. Operators are also likely to want to acquire mmWave spectrum for enterprise private network deployments, to connect high volumes of devices that need high bandwidth connectivity, such as the industrial internet of things (IoT) and smart healthcare across a controlled environment. 

Yet despite the clear potential for mmWave, there are technical challenges that will be faced in deployment, such as the fact that signals cannot travel very far and can be easily blocked by obstacles. mmWave networks will need to be densified to provide reliable coverage, which will require significant investment.

As part of what it says is a proactive approach to making mmWave spectrum available to enable investment in faster, better quality services and innovation, Ofcom believes that making the 26GHz (24.25-27.5GHz) and 40GHz (40.5-43.5GHz) bands available for new uses at the same time will maximise the spectrum’s potential to benefit for people and businesses.

Looking at the expected roll-out of mmWave networks, Ofcom said the first step was the need to clear the incumbent fixed wireless links, which will not be able to coexist with mobile technology in the new spectrum. It decided to start a statutory process to revoke licences authorising fixed links in the 26GHz band which are likely to receive harmful interference from new uses and all of the existing block-assigned licences in the 40GHz band. It will begin the process for the 26GHz band later in 2023, once it has determined which fixed links are likely to receive interference from new users.

There will be marked differences in licensing depending on location. In the UK’s major towns and cities, where it expects the highest volume of mmWave deployment, Ofcom said it would assign local licences on a first-come, first-served basis, using its Shared Access licensing framework, and award city/town-wide licences by auction. Elsewhere in the UK, in so-called low-density areas, it expects deployments to be sparser, so it will assign local licences on a first-come, first-served basis.

The regulator is now consulting on proposals for the design of the auction for city-wide licences, the licence conditions for city-wide and local mmWave licences and how it will coordinate users of this spectrum.

The decision by Ofcom has already been welcomed by the technology industry. Wassim Chourbaji, senior vice-president of government affairs at Qualcomm EMEA, said the company was very pleased with Ofcom’s decision.

“At a time when digital technologies are essential tools to meet the economic, energy and environmental needs, 5G mmWave will contribute to the growth, innovation and social inclusion in the country,” he said. “The 26GHz and 40GHz bands are key in tackling the mobile industry increasing capacity needs in the short/medium term, and in enabling a range of exciting user experiences and ultimately in unleashing the full 5G potential.”

Tony Eigen, vice-president of marketing at comms access solutions provider Baicells, said: “Many countries, including the US, are already seeing the clear performance benefits of mmWave. Data from Ookla in the US revealed mmWave is achieving extraordinary speeds – almost 1.6Gbps median 5G download speed. However, mmWave does have some known challenges, but can still have a key role in the ongoing densification of wireless networks.

“mmWave technology may also be used in high-traffic areas, such as Oxford Street or sports stadiums in the UK, which is what some US operators have started to do, where operators will want to provide high-speed coverage to large numbers of users. In addition, some operators are also using mmWave as a last-mile alternative to economically extend broadband access to homes or business in lieu of deploying fixed network facilities like fibre.

“In short, mmWave will have its place in the network. Opening up mmWave spectrum is certainly a good thing for the UK, but it’s unlikely that we’ll see operators using it widely across their networks, but rather in more specific point solutions like major venues or public spaces; this is where it can excel.”

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