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10 October 2016

Second Italian ISP uses 3.5 GHz TD-LTE to boost broadband uptake

Last week we reported on Huawei supplying equipment to Italian ISP Tiscali for a fixed wireless TD-LTE network in the 3.5 GHz band. Now Huawei’s compatriot ZTE is doing the same for another Italian provider, Linkem, indicating the new impetus behind this high frequency spectrum, and the headstart which the Chinese vendors enjoy in commercial equipment.

The highest profile 3.5 GHz project is the US CBRS band, which has adopted an innovative tiered system of licensed, unlicensed and priority access (the latter for incumbent federal users) with spectrum sharing techniques. This will certainly light new fire under the 3.5 GHz TD-LTE market, which has so far been slow to develop, with a few exceptions like UK Broadband in London.

But the precedent set in the US, and the operators’ shift of attention from LTE coverage towards high capacity bands, should be catalysts, and in many countries, 3.5 GHz spectrum is already available, without any of the complexities of the US approach (though only a few regulators have so far altered their rules to allow mobility in the band). Because 3.5 GHz has been widely licensed – often with non-onerous terms and low costs – for fixed wireless and WiMAX, many operators already have these airwaves, or can access them through partners.

Huawei and ZTE have both been in the forefront of developing equipment and helping companies migrate from WiMAX to TD-LTE. Linkem, itself a former WiMAX operator, is deploying what it says will be the largest fixed wireless access network in Europe, in Rome.

There is a new fascination with fixed wireless because of the millimeter wave trials of Verizon and AT&T, but this is good old-fashioned 4G connectivity in sub-6 GHz bands. Nevertheless, wireless plays quite a large role in the Italian access landscape and Linkem covers over 50% of the country’s population and has 400,000 subscribers.

Its model is one which will be commonplace in 5G and in dense 4G small cell roll-outs – ‘fiber to the wireless’, which means running fiber to the antennas and last mile and then wireless. It is now bringing this to Rome, including the suburbs, and it kicked off the project in style at an event in the Historical Museum of the Army Corps of Engineers, where Guglielmo Marconi’s first radio is housed.

Linkem says Rome is almost fully covered with broadband, but only two households out of three have an active service, while in areas covered by ultra-broadband services, only one household in nine has subscribed to these services. A more cost-effective and flexible option is needed to boost uptake, it argues.

It aims to reach 1.4m households, working with 150 commercial partners. Its main funding come from American backers Leucadia and Ramius,

Davide Rota, CEO of Linkem, said in a statement: “Rome is now our main technological and market challenge. The LTE radio technology, that is the 4G we are using on 3.5 GHz licensed frequencies, makes a reliable and more efficient infrastructure than any wired solution. This also allows us to be fast in covering the territory and to maintain our service at reasonable costs.”