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UK Government open up possibility of shared spectrum

DCMSOne of the critical factors limiting more widespread small cell rollout by third parties has been the lack of access to spectrum. The US government is addressing this through CBRS. The UK Government last week published a forward looking paper on the Future of Telecom Infrastructure covering both fixed and mobile services through the next 15 years. In amongst the usual hype and ambitious targets, there were some interesting snippets that open the possibility for small cells in new frequency bands, including by neutral hosts, private networks and others.

The full paper can be viewed on the UK Government DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) website here, including several supporting Annexes.

The 90 page document is more biased towards fixed broadband, where it trumpets progress made to date but promotes much more widespread deployment of fibre to the premises.

The UK, along with many other European countries, had chosen to deploy Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) and retain the last few hundred yards (or in some cases few miles) of copper to achieve rapid and widespread internet connectivity. Ever newer techniques have increased the capacity of the copper in the ground, with G.Fast providing up to 330 Mbps. BT defines superfast broadband as more than 24Mbps and ultrafast as more than 100Mbps. They plan to pass 10 million homes with G.fast (out of approx 30 million in the UK) by 2020. HFC used by cable companies can more than match that, claiming an average download speed of 362Mbps using DOCSIS 3. But every technology has its limits.

With only 4% of buildings connected directly by fibre, the UK lags far behind other countries. Japan and South Korea have achieved 99% and 97% fibre to the premises respectively. The chart below puts this into a European context.

UK broadband connection types

It would seem the UK is soon to embark on a massive upgrade to provide fibre to the premises throughout. It was particularly gratifying to read that a greater emphasis will be give to those in rural areas who have often lost out – adequate internet speeds have become an essential to conduct business and remain integral to the community. Wayleave rules will be relaxed to give greater access to network operators so they can lay cables more easily.

Germany is also having similar thoughts, with regional businesses lagging behind the adoption of Cloud Computing services. Only 2% have fibre to the premises with many parts of the country limited to 2Mbps speeds. According to this Reuters special report, Germany ranks 29th out of 34 industrialised economies for fast Internet connections.

Fibre to the premises isn’t entirely independent from the provision of cellular service, since ubiquitous low cost high speed broadband availability is a critical element for more widespread and higher capacity cellsites – even smaller ones can handle many hundreds of megabits these days.

Mobile Overview

The chapter devoted to mobile provision also touts great strides made to extend geographical coverage (ie not just population coverage), but there remains more to do. The government recognises this isn’t commercially attractive to network operators and that regulatory constraints supplemented with financial incentives are required.

UK 4G Coverage

As you might expect, a large part of the longer term vision relates to the upcoming 5G technology. Some of the marketing slides have been adopted here, looking at massive IoT, AR/VR and Connected Cars as important business drivers. However the commercial business case remains somewhat vague.

5G isn’t just 5GNR

It is notable that the scope of 5G is clearly stated to include other technologies, specifically a mix of LTE-Advanced Pro (ie. Later releases of 4G), Wi-Fi and 5GNR.

Perhaps covering the Highlands of Scotland or the rolling hills of Dorset with 4G will be considered a win for 5G too.

The timescale for different aspects of 5G are not unusual:

  1. Initially wide area coverage using 700MHz
  2. Increasing capacity in towns and cities using 3.4 to 3.6GHz
  3. Longer term, supplemented by smaller hotspots of very high capacity mmWave

5G spectrum has already been auctioned off at 3.4 to 3.6GHz and next in 2019 will see 3.6-3.8GHz plus a block of 700MHz. The general consensus is that these would mainly be used from existing cellsites to augment capacity and increase performance. Only in the longer term will 5G be considered in the mmWave bands – there doesn’t seem to be the appetite to launch a fixed wireless service using 5G at 28GHz similar to Verizon’s approach in this country (or indeed anywhere in Europe).

However we know that 5GNR performs best when it has a large chunk of spectrum allocated exclusively to it – 100MHz or more. The UK 5G Innovation Centre argues that adopting traditional model of exclusive national licences for the 3.6 to 3.8GHz band could lead to low geographic spectrum efficiency outcome. In other words, it will lie fallow in more sparsely populated areas outside the major metropolis.

A further chunk of spectrum between 3.8GHz and 4.2GHz, not currently used elsewhere for mobile services, is also being looked into for use as shared spectrum – probably 4G rather than 5G.

Consideration is being given to other methods of spectrum allocation, ranging from lightly licencing (where operators make manual requests for individual use), dynamic licencing (through an online database similar to the US CBRS scheme) or fully automated co-ordinated interference management built in to the system (as used by Wi-Fi in unlicensed bands).

Other country’s proposals

The review notes activities from regulators elsewhere in Europe when they look at 5G:

-       Germany will assign the 3.4GHz to 3.7GHz spectrum to the three national networks on a national basis, but set aside 100MHz (3.7 to 3.8GHz) for assignment on a local and regional basis. The aim is to ensure that spectrum is efficiently used and that emerging requirements can be met for small/medium enterprises and industrial applications.

-       Sweden plans to award 3.4 to 3.8GHz bands in sub-national areas according to population density

-       France has made 50MHz in the 3.4GHz band available for regional licences, targeted at wireless broadband service in areas where high speed networks are not available.

-       Italy will auction the 3.6 to 3.8GHz band in four blocks, taking measures to encourage rollout in rural areas with the express intention of encouraging independent infrastructure providers

In addition to spectrum, the UK government has provided funding for rural coverage. The Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme has been allocated £67 million, allowing individual claims per connection of up to £500 per household and £3,000 per business.

It is my understanding that these higher spectrum bands will not be mandated to use 5GNR (since the scope of 5G includes 4G too).

Summary

The UK Government is at last looking at opening up some shared spectrum that could be available for use by third parties.

The choice of new bands, 3.8-4.2GHz, will initially make this slow to become commercially deployable for mobile services, since there are currently no handsets available that support these frequencies.

Defining the scope of 5G to include 4G and Wi-Fi will allow these new frequency bands to be used more quickly (and perhaps more cheaply).

Ubiquitous coverage remains the ultimate goal for cellular service. The higher profile given to achieve this is admirable. This applies to both more remote rural areas, as well as deeper inside modern commercial and multi-dwelling buildings which have both been left behind to some extent.

With the opportunity of more accessible shared spectrum, there is clearly an opportunity for small cell vendors, private network operators and neutral hosts. However that remains somewhat longer term due to the need for compatible handsets. In the shorter term, large investments in existing cellsites by the major RAN vendors and network operators will likely continue as before.

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