Realising the 5G Opportunity for Pioneering Spectrum Access Event Report

CW logo.jpgThis recent Cambridge Wireless Small Cell SIG event was held in London, and featured an impressive speaker line-up discussing the opportunities around shared spectrum solutions, similar to CBRS, for the UK in the 5G timeframe. Spectrum access is one of several key enablers that would allow the industry to serve in-building and rural users and industry verticals that are today underserved. The UK government favours a market expansion business model for which that is an important part. We heard from government, industry and an analyst on what to look out for in the  years ahead.

Cambridge Wireless is a UK non-profit organisation with over 400 members, seeking to stimulate debate, share knowledge and build connections between academia and industry. The Small Cell Special Interest Group organises two or three annual events addressing topical current issues. I’ve been a Champion of this group for a few years, voluntarily assisting others in formulating the agenda and securing speakers for events. 

With CBRS about to launch in the US and new business models being discussed for 5G, we thought we’d blend those two topics together from a UK and European perspective. The title of “Realising the 5G opportunity for Pioneering Spectrum Access” looked specifically at setting aside some spectrum for use by others than the encumbent network operators, perhaps along similar lines to CBRS.

There was an impressive speaker list involving the government, the regulator, 5G researcher, CBRS Alliance, Industry Analyst, neutral host business and small cell vendor. I chaired a wrap-up panel session with all speakers with good audience engagement.

The new CW CEO, Simon Mead, opened the event which was hosted at the Future Cities Catapult in London and attended by around 100 delegates.

5G Policy Framework

Gareth Holvey, Head of Mobile and 5G policy at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has previous experience at OfCom. He was instrumental in the development of the UK’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review.

The UK government has a target of 95% geographic coverage by 2022 for 4G, and the majority of population coverage for 5G by 2027. [Ed Note: There is quite a difference between population and geographic coverage, and majority means more than 50%]. The primary delivery mechanism will be to use existing cellsites.

He highlighted four key recommendations:

  1. Making it easier and cheaper to deploy mobile infrastructure, such as streamlining planning regulations, improving access to public sites and power supplies.
  2. Supporting infrastructure models that promote competition and investment in densification. Neutral host/wholesale business models that go beyond today’s tower sharing.
  3. 5G Testbed/Trials. Government funding to de-risk investment and deployment
  4. Flexible spectrum policy including spectrum sharing, especially in the 3.6-3.8GHz band

CBRS nears Commercial Lauch

While the CBRS standard (now branded as OnGo), is a US specific solution, the same principles could be adapted for use in slightly different frequency bands elsewhere. Dave Wright, Director of Regulator Affairs at Ruckus Networks and also President of the CBRS Alliance, gave a useful update on the status of the CBRS project overall.

The CBRS system itself is RF technology agnostic, and will support WiMax and LTE from the outset, so it could also support 5G in that band too. However, the CBRS Alliance is currently focussed on LTE. Some CBRS incumbents (such as WiMAX fixed wireless networks) must migrate to LTE by 2020.

Regulatory approval has been granted for both CBSDs (the small cells) and several end-user devices. Test specs have been drafted for the SAS (Spectrum Access Systems) with approval now expected to be issued early Q1 2019.

Initial commercial deployments are likely to lauch mid-2019 at the same time as the first ESC (Environmental Sensing Capability) networks go live. Full commercial service is slated for 2020.

Dave also discussed the opportunities for tiered/shared access in the 3.4-3.8GHz band in Europe as part of 5G rollout, and even suggested that some industry verticals might secure their own spectrum for specific purposes and/or locations.

5G Further Faster

Stephen Temple leads the IET 5G Further Faster initiative – a diverse range of supporting companies including Federated Wireless, Google, DenseAir and WIG – with the goal to change the way spectrum is allocated for 5G. There is a series of useful white papers available from member companies.

Stephen’s primary thrust was about how best to allocate the next swathe of 5G spectrum in the 3.6-3.8GHz band. He advocates the Market Expansion business model promoted by the DCMS Future Infrastructure Review to enable opportunistic spectrum sharing in the band. He'd also like a dedicated 20MHz or more set aside for new entrants.

The idea is that in areas where network operators haven’t taken up full use of their allotted spectrum, then others can use it to provide service. This gets more extreme in rural areas where often spectrum lies fallow, especially at higher frequencies that don’t travel so far.


A Neutral Host Perspective

Wireless Infrastructure Group is one of the UK’s largest independent network infrastructure providers, with assets both outdoors (cellsite towers) and inside (DAS).

Alastair Davidson, responsible for Strategy, Regulation and Business Development at WIG points to the high cost of today’s inbuilding solutions. While the larger venues may be able to justify a comprehensive DAS solutions, more affordable choices are within reach.

He believes that a combination of technical and business models could open up a more affordable alternative. CBRS demonstrates the potential for shared access to licenced spectrum, and new business models are emerging that allow neutral host opeators to deploy in-building infrastructure that is paid under an IAAS (Infrastructure as a Service) model.

Compatibility with existing handsets is crucial to justify in-building investment. At the moment, both 3G and 4G must be deployed inbuilding to provide both voice and faster data services. VoLTE is not yet fully deployed by all UK networks, so a 4G only solution wouldn’t deliver voice service to all.

There continues to be increasing demand for mobile broadband that is more difficult to serve externally with higher frequencies and new building materials. He encouraged Ofcom to take an innovative approach to expand the options available.

Sharing Spectrum and the Virtual RAN

Caroline Gabriel needs no introduction to this audience. As a highly respected industry analyst, she has surveyed the opportunities for Small Cells for many years and works closely with the Small Cell Forum.

While existing network operators remain king of the wide area mobile service umbrella they have largely failed to make a business case for IoT or inbuilding. There is a growing misalignment between the industry needs and MNO economy.

She points out that Shared Spectrum isn’t enough on its own to compete with existing network operators. New architectures involving virtual RAN and open interfaces will also accelerate take-up.

Her forecast below shows how future deployments will change dramatically from being 67% single operator in 2016 to just 13% by 2023.

Neutral host mix UK

Comparing with early stages of the car industry

Nick Johnson, Founder and now CTO/CMO of small cell vendor ip,access, introduced a very interesting analogy. The dramatic rise of the auto industry in the US was first driven by Henry Ford’s Model-T, with the famous line “Any colour you like as long as it’s black”. Sales volumes rose dramatically to 90% market share as he dominated the market through efficiency and control of end-to-end supply chain.

But end users wanted more variety, and Ford gave way to General Motors who provided a wider range of products to suit different needs. Ford’s market share dropped to 15% in less than 10 years.

Ford Share Sales.jpg

When comparing with the business model of mobile network services, he lists the benefits of plentiful and relatively cheap wireless service “Any bundle as long as it’s cheap” and the huge growth in network capacity over past decades. But going forward, he feels that there needs to be more diversity in the products and services available to industry segments, more B2B rather than B2C, in order to achieve sustained industry leadership.

Ofcom answers

Joe Butler, Director for Telecommunications at Ofcom, the UK industry regulator, took his turn to answer many of the points raised throughout the day. I’d say he did this rather well and sympathise with the role of a regulator that has to try to balance the differing needs of many stakeholders.

Although the UK government is heavily distracted with Brexit negotiations, we can expect some new consultations to be issued very soon, including for the upcoming 700MHz band. 5G connectivity is expected first everywhere using the 3.4-3.6GHz band.

He notes that Ofcom already has experience of spectrum sharing from its previous work in TV White Space. Although easy to say in principle, adopting the CBRS Solution from the US to the UK market is not just a “Lift and Shift” operation – some adaptation would be required.

Reinforcing what other speakers had said, it’s not purely about spectrum. Issues such as physical access to sites, backhaul transmission and net neutrality also have to be considered.

Panel Session

A couple of points came up in the Q&A which I feel are worth highlighting. The first was that we don’t need to wait for 5G to become available before spectrum-sharing solutions could be adopted. CBRS proves that.

The second is the time it might take for widespread rollout of compatible 5G handsets in the 3.6-3.8GHz band. Even with regular phone upgrades, one delegate expressed the view that we are looking at 3 years for the initial 3.6-3.8GHz band and perhaps up to 8 years for the 3.8-4.2GHz band.

Signing off from the Small Cell SIG

It has been a pleasure working in the CW Small Cell SIG over recent years, but I feel now is a good time to step down from that role. This was my last event as a SIG champion. I’d like to thank those at CW who professionally support the meetings, my fellow SIG champions and wish the group the greatest success in the future.


Overall an extremely interesting and worthwhile event, with a comprehensive and highly qualified group of speakers.

You can download most of the presentations online, for free, without registration from this event resource page of the CW website.

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