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18 April 2023

India joins the battle over 6 GHz allocations as WRC-23 looms

In years when the ITU stages a World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC), there is always particular focus on thorny issues of spectrum allocation, as stakeholders lobby support for their views in advance of the event in Dubai, starting on November 20. One of the most contentious issues for delegates of WRC-23 to discuss will be the 6 GHz band, which is the focus of an intensifying stand-off between mobile operators and IT giants calling for unlicensed usage, mainly for WiFi.

The two largest mobile economies have already taken opposing stances, with the USA opening up a large swathe of the 6 GHz band to support WiFi (the WiFi 6E standard), with China reserving 6 GHz for licensed 5G.

Now the third largest, India, is engaged in its own battle over the future of this midband spectrum, which the three main MNOs – Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea – want to be auctioned for licensed use for 5G or even future 6G.

This row has developed against the backdrop of preparations for the WRC, which sets out overarching policies for spectrum allocation on a regional or global basis, to encourage harmonization and global interoperability. In the early days of mobile communications, this was an event dominated by cellular industry operators, regulators and other stakeholders. But in recent editions of the conference, as the use of communications spectrum diversifies, there have been many more interested parties.

Tussles between terrestrial mobile and satellite players have been a major feature, but in 2023, the biggest stand-offs are likely to be between the backers of private industrial spectrum (versus a universal MNO licensing model), and between the WiFi/IT sector and the licensed 5G world.

Both these debates are highlighted in the Indian situation. Companies supporting the allocation of a large swathe of the 6 GHz band for license-exempt use include hyperscalers Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Meta – all of which have significant stakes in at least one of India’s MNOs, illustrating the complexity of the battle for the airwaves in the 5G era.

Other major proponents of the call for more spectrum to be license-exempt include Qualcomm, Intel and Cisco, as well as some local Indian heavyweights such as TCS. These claim that continuing to place the bulk of beachfront, midband spectrum in the hands of a few MNOs leads to limits on competition and innovation, with a small number of service providers and equipment makers able to participate in the market.

By contrast, they argue, WiFi has spawned a huge blossoming range of use cases, deployment models and affordable equipment over the past two decades because there are no barriers to the use of its main spectrum bands in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz.

As of now, only 720 MHz of 6 GHz spectrum is available in India, which the MNOs claim is inadequate to support high-quality 5G services. The spectrum was not included in last year’s 5G spectrum auctions and is currently in use by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) unit of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is evaluating how to allocate this chunk of spectrum, and the wider 6 GHz band.

Like MNOs in other parts of the world, the Indian trio’s counterargument to that of the WiFi body is that they will have little incentive to invest in high-quality networks and services if they are not able to access and control sufficient spectrum. This argument has particular weight in India, where operators have historically been allocated small amounts of spectrum, at high per-MHz/POP prices, compared to most of the world.

This has led to poor quality of service, perpetuating a market where ARPUs are low and therefore a vicious circle of under-investment and poor user satisfaction. This was broken by the formation of Reliance Jio, which secured a significant chunk of mobile broadband spectrum in which to build its 4G-only network, now set for a rapid upgrade to 5G Standalone.

The MNO aims to use its 5G SA network to expand into high-value services, especially for enterprises and small businesses, helped by financial backing from Meta and other cloud giants as well as its parent, Reliance Industries. However, it argues that it will quickly reach the ceiling of the range and quality of services it can provide, if it does not get more midband spectrum.

The operators are demanding at least 1,200 MHz of the 6 GHz spectrum to be auctioned so that they can invest in further 5G expansion. Airtel has also embarked on 5G build-out after last year’s auctions, though financially troubled Vodafone Idea has not.

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has written to the Telecom Secretary K Rajaraman, to make the argument for allocation of the 1,200 MHz. The letter was prompted by the recent publication of a government-backed vision document for 6 GHz, which recommended that part of the band should be available license-free, mainly to expand WiFi.

“Midbands like 6 GHz provide a balance of wide coverage and capacity which is critical to the rapid and cost-efficient deployments of 5G mobile networks in India and also meets the exponentially increasing data demands that too at affordable terms,” wrote COAI’s director-general, SP Kochhar, in the letter.

Kochar cited a recent GSMA report that calculated India could save as much as $10bn a year by using 6 GHz spectrum to reduce the cost of 5G deployment. Without it, current midband allocations will be insufficient and Indian MNOs will have to use high-frequency spectrum, which would require larger numbers of towers and base stations.

“6 GHz is the only midband spectrum where a contiguous bandwidth to the order of 300-400 MHz per operator is possible to make it available for the evolving demands towards 2030,” the COAI went on.

Another source of tension over spectrum in India is how much should be allocated for private and enterprise use, rather than to MNOs. This approach has been taken in many countries, including Germany, France and even China, and in February this year, the first 20 ‘captive non-public network’ (CNPN) licenses were awarded in India, to enterprise integrators Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, Wipro and Aditya Birla Group.

This has been controversial, and will become more so if the DoT decides to earmark any 6 GHz spectrum for private networks. Many regulators believe this strategy will help kickstart enterprise usage of 5G, and so help to achieve some of the key goals for the mobile broadband networks, to support industrial digital transformation.

In India, the COAI has spoken out against this policy, arguing that MNOs are best placed to support enterprise 5G goals through technologies like network slicing; while the opposite case is made by the Broadband India Forum (BIF), an industry body with members such as Amazon, Google, Intel, Meta, OneWeb, Qualcomm, Sterlite Technologies and Tata.

Low consumer ARPUs in India make the MNOs particularly anxious to leverage enterprise 5G to improve their business cases. However, critics argue that operators have a poor track record in understanding the requirements of industries, and that their models rely on deploying generic networks at huge scale rather than attending to the individual needs of different sectors and companies. The Indian operators believe they stand to lose up to 40% of 5G revenues they had forecast if the captive network market is supported.

The argument was at its most heated in spring 2022, with just months to go before the national 5G spectrum auction in August. Operators argued that the business case for enterprise 5G was far clearer in India than for consumer services, so if they are to pay high prices for spectrum, they must be free to use those airwaves for the most lucrative services. If enterprises could acquire their own spectrum for minimal prices, there would be no incentive for operators to pay large sums at auction.

“The licensed operators are fully capable of providing all customized solutions, including M2M/Industry 4.0 services, in the most competitive and economic manner and, in fact, providing such network configuration to private and public sector entity. Hence, there is no need to alienate spectrum directly to companies for private network”, wrote the COAI in response to a TRAI consultation paper.

At the time, the DoT offered a compromise that would let non-MNOs acquire spectrum at auction prices, though the COAI wanted third-party network providers, systems integrators, and other intermediaries excluded from the auction, with only end users allowed to acquire spectrum for private use.

The operators’ hopes were dashed when the DoT released a document outlining its CNPN strategy in late June, setting out four different ways in which CNPNs would be allowed to be established:

  • First, telecom service providers (TSPs) can set up a private network by creating a slice from a public network.
  • Second, TSPs use their own licensed, but unused, spectrum.
  • Third, enterprises can license spectrum directly from a TSP.
  • Fourth, enterprises can apply directly to the DoT for a local spectrum license. There are conditions attached to this fourth option, however, which go some way to allay operator fears. For instance, one condition is an applicant must have a market valuation floor of INR100 crore ($13m), which would see a large proportion of enterprises excluded from the scheme, with their only option being to set up a CNPN through a TSP.

Of course, the battle between different spectrum stakeholders in 6 GHz goes well beyond India, hence the importance of WRC-23. Nokia recently wrote in a corporate blog post by Mirela Andouard, senior spectrum standardization specialist.

“One of the most important subjects at this WRC is the upper 6 GHz range, which holds promise for mobile operators. 6 GHz can help ensure the delivery of many 5G features such as ultra-broadband and ultra-low latency.

In terms of the evolution of future communications networks from 5G to 5G-Advanced to 6G, it holds the most promise for expanding and supporting ubiquitous connectivity in the 2025-2030 period. Everyone from device manufacturers to network equipment suppliers to operators is ready to start using this spectrum band as soon as it becomes available,” wrote Andouard.

The ITU recently finalized its report on preparatory studies for WRC-2023. Key issues identified for the two-week meeting include many items linked to satellite spectrum and the cooperation of terrestrial and non-terrestrial services, as well as the future of the UHF broadcasting band. The future of the Upper 6 GHz band, which extends up to 7.1 GHz in some regions will also be a key agenda item.

The frequencies in 6425-7025 MHz are being considered for ‘IMT identification’ in ITU-R Region 1 (Europe, Africa and Middle East) only, while 7025-7125 MHz is being considered globally. As UK regulator Ofcom put it, “such an identification would send a strong signal that the band is being prioritized for higher-power licensed mobile use.”

In a parallel effort, the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications (CEPT) is studying the possible technical conditions under which lower-power license-exempt uses such as WiFi could operate and coexist with existing services in the band.

But increasingly, some critics argue that the long processes and established conventions of the ITU are not fit for purpose in a world where spectrum must be shared and repurposed flexibly to maximize its usage, and support new services.

Modern dynamic spectrum technologies and frameworks, such as the CBRS scheme established in the USA in the 3.5 GHz band, make it unnecessary to focus on traditional methods of reducing interference, such as guard bands, argue bodies such as the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA), which held a recent summit on the benefits of sharing in bands such as 6 GHz.

Dynamic spectrum coordination systems (DSMS) are already proven to manage real-time allocation of spectrum while avoiding interference, argued keynote speaker Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the New Americas Open Technology Institute. This body recently published a report highlighting examples of successful license-exempt sharing in 6 GHz, managed by DSMS, as well as potential sharing use cases in satellite bands.

In total, 34 countries have allocated part of the 6 GHz band for license-exempt use – some of those, such as the UK, have opened up the lower portion, at 5925-6425 MHz and are considering the rules for the upper portion, at 6425-7125 MHz. Important markets that helped drive scale into the WiFi 6E ecosystem by opening up 6 GHz include the USA, Canada, Brazil and the European Union. The DSA is lobbying further large economies, such as India and Mexico, which are due to make further decisions about the spectrum this year.

DSA president Martha Suarez used the example of Chile to make the case, telling the Summit: “We hope the findings of our studies will persuade regulators and governments alike to embrace free use and unlicensed spectrum to bring a prosperous future for countries around the world.” She added that, if the full 1,200 MHz in the band were allocated in Chile, the benefit to that economy by 2031 would amount to $45.185bn.