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GSMA looks for more spectrum to head off mobile capacity crunch

The World Radiocommunication Conference 2015 is taking place in Geneva, and the GSMA is pushing hard to secure more spectrum to support mobile broadband

The surge in data usage over 4G mobile networks means that the world is running out of capacity on existing services, and more spectrum needs to be liberated to support the anticipated growth over the next few years.

This was the key message the GSM Association (GSMA), the industry body charged with the standardisation, deployment and promotion of mobile networking solutions, pushed at the ITU’s World Radiocommunication Conference 2015 (WRC-15).

The WRC-15, which is taking place between 2 and 27 November in Geneva, is a global event at which the world’s governments will revise and review the international treaties governing the use of radio spectrum and set the agenda for the next few years.

The GSMA said that with the mobile industry worth $3tn to the global economy, or 3.8% of worldwide GDP, and supporting nearly 29 million jobs, the future security of the industry hinges on its ability to function in a well-supported regulatory environment.

“Mobile broadband has proven itself a highly effective platform for improving economic and societal inclusion worldwide,” said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO at AT&T Mobile and Business Solutions, an association member.

“As more people, industries and countries achieve their dreams with mobile services, more spectrum is essential to support this enabling mobile platform. To secure the full potential of mobile broadband, the delegates at WRC-15 should assign more spectrum for the mobile industry.”

GSMA chairman Jon Fredrik Baksaas added: “WRC-15 is undoubtedly a turning point for the future of mobile. Either we respond to the growth in data demand and establish the infrastructure for continued mobile growth, or we risk a spectrum crunch that will threaten consumer choice and the global economy.

“The GSMA and our members urge governments worldwide to capitalise on the unique opportunity presented by the treaty negotiations, by allocating the spectrum necessary to promote future prosperity and further drive digital inclusion.”

Challenging negotiations

The GSMA’s spectrum experts have been working flat out to identify candidate spectrum bands for future use by mobile broadband services. However, with many competing interests vying to have their say, GSMA’s long-term spectrum director Roberto Ercole told Computer Weekly the negotiation process is set to be “challenging”.

The GSMA said it is encouraged by a groundswell of movement to free up areas of the ultra-high frequency (UHF) band. Up to now, UHF has largely been used for broadcast television at frequencies of below 700MHz, but it is becoming less important to TV broadcasters as the digital switchover continues. This area of the spectrum has excellent geographic coverage, so the GSMA is hopeful it could be used to better address rural not-spots.

Things are also looking hopeful for more spectrum to be allocated to mobile broadband in the 1 - 2GHz spectrum bands, an area that is already well in use for mobile networks and is also used for the GPS network. Agreement here is almost unanimous, said Ercole.

The GSMA has also identified a lot of vacant space in the 2.7 - 2.9GHz spectrum bands, currently mostly used for radar, where it believes mobile services could be deployed quickly and cheaply. However, it is seeing pushback from a number of national interests, according to spectrum analyst Glyn Carter, who said some countries feel that they need to safeguard it for defence purposes.

Similarly, in the 3.4 - 3.8GHz spectrum bands – currently the focus of an Ofcom auction of surplus government-owned spectrum – Carter said there is a lot of support for spectrum liberalisation in Europe, but equally some strong counter-arguments from a number of other countries would make negotiations tricky.

By harmonising these bands worldwide, it is hoped that mobile operators will be able to ensure a good mix of coverage and capacity so mobile operators are able to meet projected consumer demand.

The 5G future

Because it can take a decade between identification of spectrum and its deployment into service, the agreements reached at WRC-15 will impact the mobile broadband environment for some time to come.

This means the decisions taken in Geneva will undoubtedly have an impact on 5G roll-out in the future. While Ercole points out that the future of 5G networks will be a bigger agenda item at the next WRC in 2019, the bands discussed would be “very important in delivering the ubiquitous, high data rate services that people have come to expect”.

Trouble ahead?

However, it is possible that the outcome of WRC-15 will be less favourable to the agenda advanced by the GSMA and its operator members than hoped.

Etisalat Group CEO Ahmad Abdulkarim Julfar said the consequences of failing to secure enough spectrum for mobile broadband would result in “limiting the availability and affordability of high capacity services”.

“Failure to secure enough spectrum now will result in an inability for the mobile industry to meet the infrastructure objectives of national broadband plans. It will lead to increased capital expenditure – not only in the cost of acquiring unnecessarily scarce spectrum resources, but also due to the potential lack of lower frequency bands, more dense networks and the need to maintain user expectations of superior quality of service,” he said.

Ercole said that if the worst-case scenario came to pass, there are workarounds, such as small cells and Wi-Fi networking, which could take up some of the slack. However, he points out, these have already been deployed on a widespread basis.

“This is going to be a tough negotiation, and there will be a lot of compromises made,” he said. 

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