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10 January 2023

New year, but the same thorny spectrum debates continue

We often start a new year hoping, or even expecting, to see bright new developments on the horizon. In reality, the change of year – in the Gregorian calendar at least – just brings a brief time to reflect, or to sneak out bad news while most of the world parties, before life returns to normal.

So the first Special Report of 2023 focuses on a perennial topic in the mobile industry, the race for spectrum, and the arguments over how that should be allocated and how it can best be leveraged to balance the commercial needs of mobile operators with the socio-economic goals of governments and industries.

Many of the arguments are sadly familiar, though with World Radio Conference 2023 (WRC-23) looming this year, many of them are being made more publicly and urgently than usual as all stakeholders prepare their lobbying for that crucial event.

It can be argued that the role of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) – which runs global spectrum allocation and harmonization, and the WRC events – has diminished over the years. Local and regional policies for spectrum have broadened and fragmented along with the mobile bands themselves, as they accommodate private, unlicensed and shared spectrum models alongside the traditional auctions and beauty contests for long-term, operator-owned licences. And of course, new bands are constantly coming into play, including high frequencies above 20 GHz.

However, all these variations, driven by localized national objectives, actually make a global coordinating framework even more critical than before, so that a patchwork of different schemes do not compromise on international roaming and ecosystem economies of scale.

But the ITU framework does not, of course, help resolve the tensions created by the widening range of organizations that need spectrum. Non-operators have largely been served by unlicensed bands and supporting technologies such as WiFi, but now enterprises, governments and neutral hosts want the same quality guarantees that come with licensed spectrum. Shared access schemes such as CBRS offer a middle path, but in the USA, the CBRS experiment is based on a complex system, and has prompted recent disputes between the CTIA, representing the traditional operators, and the CBRS community, about how successful sharing has been. This row, reported in Wireless Watch in December 2022, is clearly taking place to influence US policy on other emerging 5G bands, such as upper 6 GHz.

Many other regulators are struggling to balance the competing interests in spectrum, especially with regard to enterprise licences. Three major European economies, Germany, France and the UK, have taken very different approaches, though there are some signs of convergence, as we report today, with France easing its hostility to private industrial spectrum to adopt a model somewhat closer to that of Germany. And in India, where 5G spectrum has only just been awarded, similar arguments and compromises are being worked out between the two largest operators, the country’s major industrial conglomerates, and the Department of Telecom.

Another thorny old spectrum issue is how far assets should be shared – on the plus side, this can improve the economics of 5G expansion, especially in rural areas; but opponents argue that it reduces competition and differentiation. Australia has been a hotbed of debate on aspects of network and spectrum sharing, because of its huge rural areas and the infrastructure dominance of Telstra, but the regulator’s latest move is to block an asset sharing deal between that operator and smaller rival TPG, which would have included spectrum.

One aspect of spectrum where there is likely to be new developments, mainly of a positive kind, in 2023 is millimeter wave. Much-hyped since the 5G New Radio was adapted to work in high frequencies, mmWave has been increasing its effectiveness to support fixed wireless access in certain scenarios, though its more significant economic potential, as yet largely unrealized, lies in high capacity hotzones, especially for enterprises or venues. Today we look at the momentum that is starting to build behind mmWave, as epitomized by new developments in Mexico, and how that may affect the wireless landscape in 2023.