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Splits over 5G spectrum widen, but regulators fail to see the big picture

Only a few 5G-targeted auctions have taken place so far, and they have provided few hopes that regulators are thinking as radically as they need to, if the new networks are to live up to their heavy burden of expectation. Cost-effective support for a huge range of new applications for consumers and vertical markets, enabled by wide spectrum bands and flexible, software-defined platforms, lie at the heart of the 5G vision. So, for many governments, does the idea that a larger community of service providers should be supported, either through a far more advanced version of the MVNO model, or by harnessing shared spectrum or even licences awarded for regional or industrial use.

While most governments have roadmaps and vision statements calling for some of these changes, most of their telecoms regulators are deviating only slightly from their traditional approach to spectrum. Exclusive national licences, realistically accessible only to existing mobile operators or, sometimes, fixed-line carriers, remain the norm. A few European auctions in the 3.5 GHz band had allocations for neutral host or new entrants (Portugal and Belgium, for instance). But others, like the UK, ignored the potential to set aside space for new players and business models, in this high capacity band – which is increasingly emerging as the first fairly harmonized 5G spectrum, even ahead of next year’s World Radio Conference (WRC-19).

A few regulators are thinking creatively beyond just publishing white papers (and then promising the recommendations will be implemented in future auctions, as the UK’s Ofcom is doing). Of course, the US’s FCC has been the stand-out in this respect with its aggressive push behind millimeter wave spectrum for 5G, and behind new sharing mechanisms (CBRS in 3.5 GHz, and possible extension of this multi-tiered access scheme to other midrange and high frequency bands in future).

But its regulations in both areas are complex and highly controversial, and the tortuous political arguments that have to be concluded before CBRS is in commercial use even for LTE will discourage some regulators in smaller economies from moving too early. And some players, notably T-Mobile USA, complain that, by focusing on 4G, the FCC is condemning the US to be out of step with the world (again) in the 5G era, since most countries are treating any bands between 3.4 GHz and 3.8 GHz (and sometimes up to 4.2 GHz) as 5G territory.

The weak point in that argument is that the FCC has a shared component in its CBRS allocation, whereas the C-Band is entirely licensed in most other regions. Since there will be no standards for 5G in unlicensed spectrum until Release 16 or even Release 17 (so 2-3 years away from commercial reality), it does make sense to enable service providers to use the general access tier of the CBRS scheme as soon as possible, harnessing technologies like MulteFire (which, unlike other LTE implementations in unlicensed spectrum, does not require a licensed-band anchor, and therefore can be deployed by non-MNOs).

Elsewhere in the midband, regulators have to deal with interference concerns among various incumbents from satellite providers to cablecos. In the US, Comcast and NPR (National Public Radio) are the latest players to file such concerns with the FCC, pointing to the important role of C-Band spectrum (3.7-4.2 GHz) in their distribution networks. NPR executives met FCC chairman Ajit Pai last week to talk about proposed changes in how the C-Band is licensed, to accommodate 5G. He argued that sharing these frequencies could cause harmful interference with the distribution of public radio services to the country’s 475 radio earth station downlinks.

“There is no panacea for the interference created by wireless mobile devices, whose roaming, dynamic signals cannot be coordinated with the fixed, low power downlinks on which public radio stations depend,” NPR said in its filing. “Instead, opening up C-band frequencies for co-frequency sharing by wireless broadband devices will result in widespread interference that will disrupt public radio broadcasts and could significantly impair the PRSS [Public Radio Satellite System] as a reliable, cost-effective means of program distribution across the nation.”

NPR wants the band to be subdivided rather than shared, with a portion earmarked for exclusive use by fixed satellite services (FSS) and some for PRSS.

Comcast said in its own submission that it receives about 84% of the primary signals of its cable channels via C-Band spectrum, and also has agreements with 11 content providers to receive their primary programming via fiber. In those situations, the programmers continue to use C-Band for redundant back-up.

The FCC is also eyeing the 6 GHz microwave band as a potential piece of 5G spectrum, which could be shared. This has sparked opposition from various vertical sectors, which are being represented by the Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA). It is now arguing that 5G in the 6 GHz band would risk interference with critical services run by public safety, utilities, railways and other organizations.

Ahead of the FCC’s meeting this week, the EWA is calling on the regulator not to push any 6 GHz band sharing proposal unless it can provide empirical evidence that mechanisms are in place which can avoid interference with unlicensed usage.

“The FCC’s focus on accommodating the data-centric desires of consumers cannot be allowed to override more essential public interest considerations,” said EWA CEO Mark Crosby in a letter to the FCC. “Consumers may want to stream movies and play games on their wireless devices, but they also want their electricity to stay on, water to flow to their homes, police, fire and emergency responders to protect their safety, and trains to run on time and on their tracks. Until the FCC has assured itself through empirical, not just theoretical data, it should not permit additional unlicensed sharing in the 6 GHz band.”

Earlier this year, a study by RKF Engineering Solutions said spectrum sharing was feasible between 6 GHz band incumbents and unlicensed devices. But two other groups, the Fixed Wireless Communications Coalition (FWCC), and the National Spectrum Management Association (NSMA), criticized the study’s methodology and insisted there would be harmful interference from unlicensed radio devices.

The web giants – particularly Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft – backed by Qualcomm and many WiFi players, claim anti-interference techniques are now sufficiently advanced to protect the incumbents.

And so the tug-of-war between the need to support more and more mobile data traffic, and the interests of incumbent services, will continue. One of the regulator’s great hopes, of course, is that the mmWave bands will prove technically and economically strong for 5G. Many of these high frequency bands – typically between 26 GHz and 60 GHz, but potentially far higher – are unused or underused, and even where there are incumbents, there should be enough capacity for relatively stress-free sharing.

The FCC has been setting the global pace for opening up these bands for 5G, though in terms of technical work, much of the progress so far has been made in the WiFi world (with development of 60 GHz WiGig), and by the great R&D labs of the Asian vendors and operators. But in the US, Verizon and AT&T plan to launch 5G (initially fixed) in 26 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum which is already available for use, thanks to the failed broadband wireless boom at the turn of the century in the LMDS bands. This will provide valuable insights into real world ways to address the challenges of high frequencies, such as limited range and indoor penetration. It is also likely to help set the valuation of mmWave licences when these start to be auctioned, which should happen this year in the US, South Korea and some other countries. The FCC’s 28 GHz auction will start in November.

But if most of the key mmWave bands are auctioned in the conventional way, the promise of their huge capacity and uncluttered state will be lost. The FCC is looking at a new sharing framework, initially for the 24 GHz band, drawing on some of the lessons of CBRS. It is also proposing to allow 5G in the 37 GHz band, and to consider 26 GHz and 42 GHz for 5G also (26 GHz could be seen as a fait accompli, considering Verizon and AT&T will deploy this year, the latter using fully standard 3GPP technology).

The main rules which the FCC is proposing include:

• an operability requirement for the entire 24 GHz band
• a framework to allow shared use of some of the 24 GHz band by terrestrial wireless and by FSS earth stations
• a band plan for the Lower 37 GHz band
• spectrum aggregation rules for some of the high bands

But it has denied petitions for geographic area licensing in the lower 37 GHz band; and to allocate the 42 GHz band only for satellite.

It is seeking further comment on making 2.75 GHz of additional spectrum in the 26 GHz and 42 GHz bands available for 5G, and on potential rules for FSS using the 50 GHz band for earth stations. It will start work on coordination mechanisms for shared use of the lower 37 GHz band between federal and non-federal users; and continue work on access to additional bands in the low, midrange and high areas of the spectrum.

Differences of opinion on all these topics will be fierce, and that division started in the FCC itself. While Pai and Commissioner Brendan Carr approved the whole package of proposals, Michael O’Rielly and Jessica Rosenworcel approved only in part. Rosenworcel believes some of the rules do not go far enough, and said in a statement: “The FCC is timidly moving to auction mmWave bands one by one instead of boldly all together. Today’s action falls short.” She added: “As our national providers seek to grow bigger and fewer in number, it is important we take steps now to avoid undue aggregation of spectrum in these new markets.”

Pai referred to the need to streamline infrastructure deployment and site rules, not just those governing spectrum. He said: “We’re pursuing infrastructure policies vital for densified 5G networks, from updating our wireless infrastructure rules to encouraging the massive fibre deployments needed for backhaul.”

And O’Rielly took issue with other aspects, saying: “I am deeply troubled by the portions of the item that discuss post-auction and secondary market case-by-case spectrum aggregation review. There is still no evidence of the wireless industry ever ‘warehousing’ spectrum. I was hoping that we would finally put an end to this charade.”

Across the US’s northern border, Canada’s regulator is under pressure from operators to keep up with the frontrunners in 5G. At last week’s Canadian Telecom Summit, Bell Canada, Rogers, Shaw and Telus all urged the federal government, and the regulator, Industry Canada, to act more quickly on opening up 3.5 GHz spectrum for 5G. This sale is not scheduled until 2020, well behind many other advanced mobile nations.

Telus’s CTO Ibrahim Gedeon said, in his conference keynote: “For the last three years, the mobility spectrum for 5G is 3.5 GHz, yet our plan in Canada to make that available is, I would say, 2020?” he said. “We have a number of partners – Nokia, Ericsson, Ciena and Huawei … If we live in a country where they’re not going to be able to demonstrate something, how much do you think they would invest in making sure something like this happens?”

Brian O’Shaughnessy, CTO of converged networks at Shaw Communications, said: “Competition will drive 5G in Canada. We need the government to get spectrum in the hands of carriers as soon as possible so we can go after each other.”

Telus and Rogers have already carried out 5G tests in 3.5 GHz spectrum. However, the band has already been allocated for fixed wireless access and so most of the airwaves would need to be pulled back and repurposed.

The minister for innovation, science and economic development Navdeep Bains promised to release more millimeter wave spectrum and start the regulatory process for 3.5 GHz, saying: “We are proposing to release an additional 1 GHz of millimeter wave spectrum and are also launching a consultative process that will advance us toward the 3500 MHz auction. The consultation reflects our commitment to get this spectrum into the marketplace in a timely way that also supports competition. We know that industry wants access to this spectrum.”

Bains insisted, rather optimistically: “We will still be ahead of Australia and Germany and will be (among) the top five countries when it comes to making spectrum available for 5G.

But if anyone was hoping he would bring the timelines forward, they were disappointed. The ministry still plans to prioritize 600 MHz for early 5G auctions, because of the complexities of refarming parts of 3.5 GHz. The government roadmap calls for one spectrum auction per year for the next five years, starting with 600 MHz in 2019, 3.5 GHz in 2020 and mmWave in 2021. However, while a few operators (like T-Mobile USA) are pursuing the kind of wide area coverage roll-outs which 600 MHz supports well, most want to deploy 5G initially to boost capacity in targeted areas of high demand, or to support new services, keeping LTE in play for many years as the coverage technology.

It is not just in north America that regulators are feeling the heat over 5G spectrum policies. The past week has seen furious debate from Hong Kong to the European Union on best practice for the first waves of 5G allocations. In Hong Kong, PCCW-owned HKT is calling on the government to make major changes to its policies, or risk failing to reach its smart city goals, which are central to many economic roadmaps for the state.

In the latest of a series of criticisms since December 2016, HKT wrote in a filing that the regulator, the Communications Authority (CA), is misleading the public about the readiness for 5G. The body says it is actively laying the foundations for the launch of commercial, widespread 5G in 2020. But the HKT document argues: “Making spectrum available by 2020 does not allow the launch of 5G services by 2020. As the CA is very well aware, it can take around two years for spectrum assignees to prepare the roll-out of the network using newly acquired spectrum … On the CA’s schedule, territory-wide coverage will not be available until 2022.”

That will put Hong Kong behind 5G leaders, including mainland China, and will make it tough to implement current smart city policies because there will be insufficient 5G coverage, argues the paper.

“Particularly disturbing is that the government does not seem to understand what is at stake here and, while making Hong Kong a ‘Smart City’ is stated as a policy objective, there seems to be no recognition that no city will be a smart city unless 5G is introduced early and widely,” it says. “Other countries have made enormous strides in freeing up new spectrum for mobile use in anticipation of 5G being an enabler of their smart city policies.”

The operator also wants the government to introduce an enforceable statutory right of access for mobile operators to enter buildings, shopping malls, metro transport locations and road tunnels to install and maintain 5G equipment. And it wants new structures of charging for spectrum, and the ability to trade licences.

Some of the same arguments are being held in Europe. Like their counterparts in other developed mobile economies, MNOs in Europe are using the threat of “falling behind in 5G” to try to persuade governments and regulators to change their policies. In an open letter, CTOs and other senior executives from major European operators called on an “investment friendly” policy for the 26 GHz band.

The letter was coordinated by the GSMA and signed by executives from Vodafone Group, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, KPN, Telia, Turkcell, 3 Group, BT and Telefonica. They were joined by executives from vendors Nokia, Huawei, Samsung and Ericsson. It was sent to the European Communications Committee (ECC), which is currently discussing use of the 26 GHz band for 5G in Europe.

The proposals as they stand, “will severely constrain use of the band for 5G in Europe”, says the letter. The rules would include restrictive emission limits for mobile equipment, along with other regulations which the signatories say “would prevent mobile operators from building the best possible 5G networks and would de-incentivize the industry from building the types of dense networks that would enable the gigabit society.”

The companies added that, if Europe does follow this restrictive approach, “it will be placing itself at a significant disadvantage in the global 5G race and hamper its ability to compete effectively with other countries and regions”.

By contrast, the letter argued, the countries which are favouring 28 GHz for their initial mmWave 5G roll-outs – notably the US, South Korea and Japan – had taken a “pragmatic approach to emissions limits for the 28 GHz band. This was also true of some countries which are following the guidance set after the last World Radio Conference, that 26 GHz would be one of the harmonized global 5G mmWave bands. China, plus some countries in the Middle East and Asia, are “also favoring less restrictive conditions”.

In north America, Hong Kong and Europe – and elsewhere – the pattern is depressingly similar:

• Governments have set ambitious socio-economic agendas for 5G and want to be able to boost national pride by being among the first to deploy;
• MNOs are playing lip service to those visions while mainly focusing on boosting capacity to expand their traditional mobile broadband models;
• Since they hold most of the mobile spectrum, many of the services governments and industries want, including those enabling smart cities or the Industrial IoT, may be slow to develop without stronger commercial models;
• Better mechanisms for new entrants, neutral host and flexible sharing would encourage those organizations which can make a case for the new services to enter the market. But the standards, policies and mechanisms to support wider unlicensed or non-MNO deployments are lagging far behind the traditional auctions.

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