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As always, the World Radio Conference has had to attempt a difficult balancing act between competing claims on spectrum resources, and that gets harder on each occasion, particularly as the mobile industry's demands for ever-greater broadband capacity grow. While recognising the social and economic impact of mobile broadband, the WRC also has to be mindful of the needs of other user. In the 2015 conference, which concluded at the end of last week after more than three weeks of discussions, it particularly had to address the concerns of the broadcasting and satellite sectors.
The broadcasting industry generally reacted favourably to the decisions made in the 700 MHz and sub-700 MHz bands. The first major outcomes of the event allocated the 700 MHz spectrum as a global mobile broadband resource, which will variously be used for LTE-Advanced, IoT and 5G services. However, although spectrum below 694 MHz is being repurposed for cellular networks in some countries, notably the US, the WRC resisted lobbying from the mobile industry and kept it in the hands of the TV sector in Region 1 (EMEA).
This conference was not specifically tasked with looking at 5G spectrum allocations, though that will be a central agenda item in the 2019 event. However, some of the decisions, including 700 MHz harmonization, will influence how, and when, some MNOs can deploy 5G. And WRC-15 delegates approved several agenda items for 2019, which will be directly related to 5G, particularly related to high frequency spectrum. Many 5G activities are focused on bands above 6 GHz, and right up to 100 GHz and beyond, with the view that exploiting these high capacity and underused airwaves will be the only way to keep meeting the levels of demand for mobile data.
However, the first wave of 5G standards and deployments are likely to remain concentrated on traditional sub-6 GHz bands, so that WRC-19 can set the stage for a second phase of work, which will need to address the considerable challenges of creating efficient radio designs for high frequencies.
John Giusti, chief regulatory officer of the GSMA, said in a statement: "We acknowledge the agreement at WRC-15 for a new agenda item for WRC-19 to identify high frequency bands above 24 GHz for 5G mobile services. This is a critical first stage in the journey towards a new wave of mobile innovation, considerably faster than existing technologies and driving a hyper-connected society in which mobile will play an ever more important role in people's lives."
In the shorter term, the mobile industry now has three additional globally harmonized bands - harmonization, as Giusti commented, is "key to driving the economies of scale needed to deliver low cost, ubiquitous mobile broadband to consumers around the globe". As well as the 700 MHz (694-790 MHz) spectrum, the others are 200 MHz in the C-band (3.4-3.6 GHz), which is seen as an important capacity band for small cells; and the L-band in 1427-1518 MHz, which provides a balance of coverage and capacity.
The GSMA may not have got its way on the sub-700 MHz band this time, but its tone was optimistic. Giusti said: "The GSMA particularly commends the vision shown by many countries seeking the flexibility to use the sub-700MHz band (especially 610-694/698 MHz) for mobile broadband. Not only can legacy television services in the band be delivered far more efficiently using less spectrum, but the reality is that consumer habits are evolving as video content is increasingly accessed via mobile devices. Allowing both mobile and broadcasting in the band gives these governments the ability to respond to the changing needs of their citizens."
The satellite industry had lobbied heavily ahead of the Geneva event, aware that some of the bands which the cellular operators are eyeing for 5G are currently used for satellite. A group of global and regional satellite industry assocations issued a statement, under the auspices of the Satellite Spectrum Initiative, which was generally upbeat about the WRC outcomes.
The statement read "The world's governments resoundingly affirmed a clear vision for the importance of many vital and irreplaceable services provided today over satellite. They also agreed on a clear framework for future access to spectrum for innovative satellite communications." The groups pointed out that, while spectrum in the L and C bands was harmonized for mobile IMT use, there were clear measures to protect adjacent satellite users in 1518-1559 MHz, and there was no reallocation of the upper portion of the C-band, in 3.6-4.2 GHz.
The conference did not include any globally harmonized bandsi, currently used for satellite services in the C, Ku or Ka bands, within the WRC-19 agenda item to identify future 5G spectrum, leading satellite delegates to boast that they had preserved the Ka band, in particular.
Several agenda items were adopted for future WRC conferences, including a study for 2019 of additional fixed satellite service (FSS) airwaves in 51.4-52.4 GHz. In addition, an agenda item for WRC-23 was adopted, focused on additional satellite spectrum in 37.5-39.5 GHz. And a resolution was adopted, which paves the way for using FSS links for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones.
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The most important decision so far from the ITU's World Radio Conference (WRC-15) is to move the 700 MHz band from a regionally to a globally harmonised allocation for mobile broadband.
The move was widely expected, but is significant nonetheless, setting the stage for global services - LTE or 5G - in the 694-790 MHz spectrum, and for major economic impact on LTE roll-out costs, in Africa in particular.
In 2007, it was allocated for this purpose in the Americas and Asia-Pacific (ITU Regions 2 and 3), but not in EMEA (Region 1). For Region 1, incorporating Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Africa, a decision at WRC-12 created the possibility of allocating the 700 MHz band after WRC-15 for mobile service.
However, this high level allocation does not lead magically to the economies of scale which would accompany a virgin global band. North American operators have already deployed LTE in 700 MHz, but with a fragmented band plan which is very different from those elsewhere, creating problems for handset uniformity, and roaming, within US borders, let alone internationally.
And the GSMA, which represents mobile operators, is not satisfied just with this spectrum, but wants the ITU to open up the sub-700 MHz band (470-694 MHz) for cellular use also. This spectrum, with its excellent range and indoor penetration, would provide a valuable coverage band for the machine-to-machine services which will be a bedrock of 5G business cases.
The 700 MHz decision, then, is something of a tidying-up exercise, since many countries are already allocating the frequencies and even deploying networks. In the Americas and many Asia-Pacific nations, 700 MHz was the first digital dividend spectrum to be repurposed from broadcast to mobile broadband use. Outside north America, most regulators have adopted a fairly harmonized band plan known as AP700 (driven from Asia-Pacific but also supported by most Latin American administrations).
In the EMEA region, 800 MHz was the first digital dividend and has been widely harnessed for LTE deployments or plans, with 700 MHz providing a second dividend. This region is divided on whether to follow the AP700 plan - most operators and regulators would like to get as close to it as possible, to maximize economic efficiencies and global roaming, but many will be unable to follow it completely, because of interference issues with other services.
Some countries are going ahead with 700 MHz auctions even though the frequencies will not usually be freed up until near the end of the decade, and even without full clarity on the band plans. Germany was the first European country to sell this spectrum, and France followed suit, concluding its auction last week.
The ITU said its latest decision would not harm other sectors, despite lobbying from broadcasters and aeronautical navigation agencies.
ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao said in a statement: "The WRC-15 decision represents a landmark in the development of broadband mobile on a worldwide scale, regardless of location, network or terminal used. It goes a long way in enabling bridging of the digital divide, while fully protecting the other services currently operated in the band."
The provisions adopted by the ITU include protections for broadcasting and aircraft navigation systems.
François Rancy, Director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau, added: "The global harmonization of the 694-790 MHz frequency band that has been decided by WRC-15 paves the way for manufacturers and mobile operators to offer mobile broadband at an affordable price in currently underserved areas."
The biggest impact of global 700 MHz is likely to be in Africa. In Europe, the 700 MHz spectrum is likely to be incremental to many carriers' business cases, whereas in Africa, it will often be central to delivering broadband on an unprecedented scale, with the social and economic impact that delivers. There are signs of a coming mobile broadband boom in parts of this diverse continent - a report from the GSMA earlier this year forecast that the number of unique mobile subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa will pass the 500m mark in 2020.
Africa delegations surprised everyone at the WRC-12 conference by getting the ITU to agree that the 700 MHz band could also become a second digital dividend in Region 1 after WRC-15. In September 2014, a meeting of the ITU and the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), saw Africa become the first region in the world to come up with a harmonized band plan for both the digital dividend bands. The September meeting resulting in a coordinated mechanism for the dividend agreed by 47 sub-Saharan African countries. The consolidation of national plans conforms with the regulations originally set out in 2006 at the ITU's Regional Radiocommunication Conference (RRC-06), and with international switchover deadlines of June 2015 (for UHF) and June 2020 (for VHF in 33 countries).
Aims of digital inclusion and new services would be further supported by adding the sub-700 MHz band, argued GSMA chief regulatory officer, John Giusti. He denied that the Association is ignoring the needs of broadcasters, proposing that mobile broadband should gain a co-primary allocation, and employ the latest technology to enable harmonious sharing.
Speaking in Geneva, where the WRC is taking place, he said: "Today, the UHF band is lightly used for terrestrial broadcasting in many countries. By implementing the latest technologies, these legacy services could be maintained in a smaller amount of spectrum, maximizing the use of this valuable spectrum resource by allowing both mobile and broadcasting below 700 MHz."
He continued: "Adding a co-primary allocation in the sub-700 MHz band at WRC-15 would offer governments the flexibility to meet the changing needs of their citizens, who are increasingly accessing video content via 'second screen' mobile and tablet devices, and expand the well-established socioeconomic benefits generated by mobile broadband. There is no evidence that the existence of a co-primary allocation to mobile has had a negative impact on broadcast investment."
He said that, if no change is introduced in this band, it "would likely not be until at least 2023 before governments could revisit allocations in the sub-700 MHz band, with a further 5-10 years before it would reach the public in the form of new and innovative services."
WRC-15 runs from November 2 to November 27. While specific allocations for 5G are the remit of its successor, WRC-19, some pointers towards future spectrum policies are expected to emerge. However, some operators are likely to use frequencies, including those in 700 MHz, which are part of the current program, for new networks including specific M2M/IoT systems, and/or 5G.
Many carriers believe the propagation qualities of the 700 MHz band will be well suited to low power M2M applications, for instance in smart cities, especially as they may have achieved sufficient coverage for conventional LTE data and voice applications with existing 800 MHz assets, and are turning to higher frequencies, such as 2.6 GHz, to add capacity for consumer services.
Paired with evolving, ultra-low power variants of LTE (NB-IoT and LTE-MTC), some MNOs, especially in Europe, say they will be able to use 700 MHz frequencies to compete with specialized smart city networks such as LoRa and Sigfox. These would-be standards are gaining ground in the absence of an M2M-optimised LTE option, but they have the disadvantage of operating mainly in licence-exempt spectrum (the 868 MHz band in Europe), which has security and reliability implications for mission critical functions.
Qualcomm and others have made proposals to the 3GPP and to regulators to earmark a 2×3 MHz sub-section in the 700 MHz band, specifically for M2M and NB-IoT use. They believe that would help 4G operators be competitive in M2M markets such as smart cities, but others - including many carriers - want all spectrum to be usage-neutral and to have the freedom to deploy whatever seems most appropriate.
France kicks off 700 MHz auction process, Singapore to create fourth MNO, Russia and Mexico to auction new spectrum
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LTE spectrum allocations are coming thick and fast as countries round the world seek to ensure they keep up in mobile and broadband services. This week has seen France kick off its 700 MHz auction process, hard on the heels of Germany; Singapore is setting aside 60 MHz of spectrum for a new entrant to boost 4G competition; while Russia and Mexico, two of the markets with high mobile growth potential, have announced new plans to issue more licences.
In France, the government has approved regulator Arcep's proposals for the auction of 700 MHz, or second digital dividend, spectrum later this year, marking the official start of the process. Bidders will need to submit their applications during the third quarter and the auction will take place in Q4, with a precise timeline to be announced.
The government confirmed that the reserve price for a 5 MHz block of paired spectrum will be €416m, so if all 30 MHz of available airwaves are sold, a total of €2.5bn will boost treasury coffers. The ministers also ratified Arcep's previously announced conditions regarding rural and railway coverage obligations and spectrum caps.
On the latter, players will be restricted to a maximum of three blocks, or 2 x 15 MHz, in the coveted 700 MHz band, and 2 x 50 MHz across all three sub-1 GHz bands (700 MHz, 800 MHz and 900 MHz).
Many operators believe the propagation qualities of the 700 MHz spectrum, currently used for broadcasting, will be well suited to low power machine-to-machine applications, for instance in smart cities, especially as they may have achieved sufficient coverage for conventional LTE data and voice applications with existing 800 MHz assets, and will turning to higher frequencies to add capacity for consumer services.
Paired with evolving, ultra-low power variants of LTE (LTE-MTC and 'Cellular IoT'), some MNOs say they will be able to use 700 MHz frequencies to compete with specialised smart city networks such as LoRa and Sigfox. These would-be standards are gaining ground in the absence of an M2M-optimised LTE option, but they have the disadvantage of operating mainly in licence-exempt spectrum (the 868 MHz band in Europe), which has security and reliability implications for mission critical functions.
Some of these low power wide area (LPWA) technologies are likely to be absorbed into the 3GPP standards in future - Sigfox, LoRa and Telensa have submissions to the 3GPP, and Huawei's Cellular IoT platform, supported by Vodafone, includes technology from its acquisition of LPWA chip pioneer Neul.
Halfway round the world in Singapore, there is also increasing focus on M2M and smart city services as the regulator, IDA, looks to usher a new operator into the market by creating a fourth mobile licence and setting aside spectrum for it.
To date two companies have expressed interest. One is OMGTel, which is a start-up but is partnering with public transport operator SMRT, with a view to majoring on services for travellers and smart city applications. The other is fiber-based ISP MyRepublic, which has been on an expansion drive, including a recent launch in Indonesia.
The regulator is proposing to set aside 60 MHz of spectrum, including 40 MHz below 1 GHz, for the fourth operator, but will only allow one new entrant, to avoid fragmentation. It may hold a special auction for the earmarked spectrum, with a lower reserve price than the main sale, which would effectively decide which new player should be allocated the licence. The reserve fee is reported to be around S$40m ($29.6m). The winner would then be required to achieve nationwide coverage with its own build-out (not roaming) by September 2018.
The plan is now open for public consultation until August 12, with critics saying that Singapore is too small to sustain four mobile operators profitably, pointing to the way that, in far larger countries like Germany, the number of MNOs has been reduced to three through consolidation. However, if a new entrant were to be heavily focused on emerging revenue streams like smart cities - an area in which Singapore is forging ahead rapidly - it might be possible to boost innovation without sparking a price war.
In Mexico, the regulator Ifetel has announced that, as part of its national spectrum plan, it will offer spectrum in the 2500 MHz-2690 MHz band from next year, following recommendations from the ITU and CITEL. It said in a statement: "This scheme has a sufficiently broad set of contiguous blocks of spectrum that allows the deployment of broadband technologies using the FDD-LTE or TDD-LTE methods."
AT&T, which recently acquired Iusacell and Nextel Mexico - and will gain a 41.3% stake in Sky Mexico through its DirecTV purchase - is already expanding mobile services across the border from the US and is positioning itself to be a major mobile and quad play challenger to the incumbent America Movil. The US giant recently approached Ifetel to request a 50 MHz block of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band.
There have been years of fighting over this high capacity band, which has traditionally been allocated mainly for MMDS broadcast and fixed broadband services, though some of those operators had moved into WiMAX. In the fall of 2013, the government finally came to an agreement with existing licence holders in the band, with a plan to recover 190 MHz of spectrum to reassign for LTE. Nine of the 11 MMDS holders surrendered their licences, totalling 130 MHz, though the controllers of the other 60 MHz had their franchises renewed for 15 years.
In the final spectrum news of the week, Russia's regulator Roskomnadzor has announced an auction of 1.8 GHz spectrum starting on September 29. MNOs including MTS and Tele2 have already launched LTE services in this band in some regions, but the auction will enable them to expand their footprint, and other operators - potentially the other big three MNOs, Vimpelcom and MegaFon , to join the party in this increasingly popular and globalised 4G band.
BY CAROLINE GABRIEL
This will be the year of another possibly unseemly scramble for sub-1GHz mobile spectrum, with the US's controversial incentive auction in the 600MHz band due to take place, and many countries round the world selling 700MHz licences. While some regulators in Latin America and Asia will be offering this spectrum as part of their initial digital dividend, which will transfer broadcast frequencies to mobile broadband use, Europe and the US are already embarking on their second dividends.
Even though most second-round LTE deployments will focus on adding capacity rather than increased coverage, the need to deliver even greater availability - especially if there are plans to turn off 2G or 3G - and to prepare for the Internet of Things, will keep carriers focused on sub-1GHz bands, and probably prepared to pay high fees for those licences.
Germany is to kick off Europe's sale of 700 MHz spectrum licences, the 'second digital dividend'. Its auction will begin on May 27, though any hopes of it ushering in new competition have been dashed - the participants will be the incumbent players, their number reduced to three by the merger of E-Plus and O2 Germany.
That deal was itself partly triggered by former KPN subsidiary E-Plus's failure to secure licences in the last auction of sub-1 GHz spectrum in Germany, which sold the 800 MHz airwaves of the first digital dividend. That result highlighted the importance of low frequencies, which help support the roll-out of wide coverage at affordable cost.
The remaining three operators are Deutsche Telekom/T-Mobile, Vodafone and O2, all three of which will vye for 2x30 MHz in the 700 MHz band, even though the current broadcast users will have to relocate, and the precise band plan has yet to be worked out at CEPT, the European standards agency.
There is debate over how far the EMEA region will be able to adopt the Asia-Pacific band plan for 700 MHz, which has also been accepted by most Latin American countries, but operators are generally keen to get as close to it as possible, to encourage a broad device ecosystem. There is also debate over proposals, backed by Qualcomm and others, to earmark a 2x3 MHz sub-section specifically for machine-to-machine usage, and the emerging LTE-MTC low power standard. Qualcomm and others believe that would help LTE operators be competitive in M2M markets such as smart cities, but others - including many carriers - want all spectrum to be usage-neutral and to have the freedom to deploy whatever seems most appropriate.
The German auction will also involve 900 MHz, 1.5GHz and 1.8 GHz spectrum, with a total of 270 MHz up for sale.
In 700 MHz, there will be lots of 2x5 MHz with minimum bids based on the fees set in 2013 (€75m per lot). There will be conditions attached, such as providing mobile broadband speeds of at least 10Mbps to 98% of the population and covering at least 95% of all states and 99% of all city states covered as well as 100% of the federal highways and ICE train tracks. These mandates must be met within three years from the start of the licences, which will run until 2031.
In the 900 MHz and 1.8 GHz GSM bands (in which licences expire soon), the regulator, BNA, has set a cap of 2x15 MHz per provider (three blocks) with a minimum bid of €75m for the 900 MHz band, €37.5m for 1.8 GHz and €18.75m for 1.5 GHz.
The Treasury is hopeful of higher takings than in the first digital dividend auction, in 2010, which yielded €4.385bn in total and €3.58bn from the 800 MHz licences. Analysts at Commerzbank are forecasting a figure of €4.5bn for the 800 MHz licences this time.
In France, the 700 MHz auction will also be held late this year, and the handover of the frequencies will take place between October 1 2017 and June 30 2019, a shorter timescale than some countries, such as the UK, are envisaging. In some areas of France, 700 MHz spectrum could even be available in 2016. The 800 MHz auction in France raised €3.5bn in December 2011 and the government hopes to secure an additional €2bn or more from 700 MHz.
Iliad's Free Mobile unit is likely to be a major bidder, as it has far less spectrum than its rivals and relies on MVNO deals with Orange (as well as its own extensive WiFi network). Adding sub-1GHz LTE to its dense deployment of WiFi homespots and 3G/4G femtocells could increase its disruptive effect, which has also sparked a vicious price war and a round of consolidation in France.
Despite all this activity in Europe, the 700MHz spectrum is likely to be incremental to many carriers, whereas in Africa, it will often be central to delivering broadband on an unprecedented scale, with the social and economic impact that delivers. There are signs of a coming mobile broadband boom in parts of this diverse continent - a recent report from the GSMA forecasts that the number of unique mobile subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa will pass the 500m mark in 2020.
For Region 1, incorporating Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Africa, a decision at WRC-12 created the possibility of allocating the 700MHz (694-790MHz) band after WRC-15 for mobile service in Region 1 (EMEA). 700MHz spectrum there - so from 2015 the region will be opening up 700MHz and 800MHz in the same timeframe in many countries.
The continent is likely to be one of the most significant drivers of decisions at the WRC-15 World Radio Conference in the fall. Africa surprised everyone at the 2012 conference by getting the ITU to agree that the 700MHz band, adopted in the Americas and much of Asia for mobile broadband, should also become a second digital dividend in Region 1 (EMEA), where 800MHz had been the initial area of broadcast spectrum to be repurposed.
Last September, a meeting of the ITU and the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), saw Africa become the first region in the world to come up with a harmonized band plan for both the digital dividend bands - both of which have often been implemented in a fragmented way in some parts of the world. This should be highly influential at WRC-15. The September meeting resulting in a coordinated mechanism for the dividend agreed by 47 sub-Saharan African countries. The consolidation of national plans conforms with the regulations originally set out in 2006 at the ITU's Regional Radiocommunication Conference (RRC-06), and with international switchover deadlines of June 2015 (for UHF) and June 2020 (for VHF in 33 countries).
Such landmark decisions highlight a world where new economies were putting their concerns firmly on the agenda. The same can be expected this time around, as Africa trades on the huge scale of its potential mobile growth, and pushes for regulatory and industry decisions which reflect its requirements, rather than having to adapt itself constantly to rules driven by Europe.
It remains to be seen how far Africa becomes a mobile products powerhouse, as opposed to a major source of business for outside suppliers. Its first homegrown handset maker to put its head above the global parapet, Mi-Fone, aims to be the Xiaomi of Africa, but generally, the region has not developed a native mobile ecosystem as yet.
However, the opportunities for suppliers will be huge during the later years of the decade. Even in countries where 3G never got beyond large cities, LTE is being embraced more wholeheartedly because its spectrum options and its technology make it able to support broader business models than 3G - rural coverage and fixed wireless broadband, using low frequency bands in underserved areas, as well as the classic capacity models in urban and high income areas.
All this potential is already driving a wave of acquisitions as local and outside multinationals seek to extend their reach in anticipation of the boom to come. Vodafone has several key ventures, such as its South Africa-based Vodacom group (based in South Africa, with other operations on Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lesotho and Mozambique), and Safaricom in Kenya. Orange and India's Bharti Airtel have also expanded rapidly in the region, while MTN is a major locally based multinational, also headquartered in South Africa.
There will be plenty of opportunities for these groups, and other entrants, perhaps from China, to snap up assets in high growth markets. Some African countries have large numbers of operators, and are ripe for consolidation, while others are just starting to transition from a state-owned monopoly situation, and opening up to outside investors or new players.
All three operators now have paired and unpaired spectrum, but will wait until 2015 for commercial FDD, and 2020 for sub-1GHz
However, it seems likely they will have to wait until 2020 to gain usable spectrum in 700MHz, coveted for its long range and indoor penetration, which greatly reduces the cost of rural build-outs and initial, coverage-driven LTE projects.
Initially, then, all three companies will have higher band spectrum, both paired and unpaired, though it could take a year or even two for the FDD trial licences to be converted into commercial ones (there was a wait of about two years for the same process in TDD, though the huge 'trial' networks which China Mobile constructed during that time were hardly just testbeds.
The length of the wait will be significant for the two smaller operators, whose 3G networks are FDD, and which would prefer to lead with paired frequencies in LTE too, adding TDD at a later stage, for capacity, when the ecosystem has matured. However, Mobile's lobbying for TDD-first means they will have to adopt a hybrid TDD/FDD strategy, a fact which should stimulate the equipment and device ecosystems - another key Mobile objective - but could also make a RAN sharing deal between all three players more likely.
Talks about such an agreement are reportedly ongoing, and the long wait for 700MHz, which improves cost efficiencies for LTE, may be another incentive to come to a deal.
Last week, China Telecom was granted a trial FDD licence so that it can start building networks in major cities immediately, and Unicom and Mobile quickly received their own similar allocations. The bands were not specified but was certainly not sub-1GHz.
China faces the same tensions and trade-offs between the broadcasters, incumbent in the 700MHz spectrum, and the mobile operators, eager for the digital dividend in frequencies which are particularly suited to affordable wide area coverage. The head of China's broadcasting regulator, GAPPRFT, Jiang Wenbo, said this week that it will not complete the handover of the 700MHz spectrum until 2020.