EU study claims spectrum overhaul needed to support 5G

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A new EU-backed study has backed operator demands for long spectrum licences but claims new approaches such as spectrum sharing may be needed to support 5G.

The report found the current licensing regime, based on long-term exclusive licences for individual companies, was “generally fit” for delivering current services.

It said the so-called investment-friendly practices favoured by operators, such as low reserve prices in auctions, coverage objectives balancing profitability with societal need and long licence lengths led to better outcomes due to greater market certainty.

In particular, the study found that where these conditions had been in place countries had seen wider network roll-outs, better service choice and quality, higher take-up of services and greater competition.

However, the analysis of 5G scenarios found that a range of approaches would be needed to achieve the full benefits of next generation networks.

“5G will lead to significant changes since use cases that extend beyond traditional mobile broadband are central to its ethos,” the report said.

The report claimed light licensing, which sets low licence fees that cover administrative costs, and licensed shared access could all help stimulate the growth of new 5G services.

Other approaches included non-national spectrum licences, allowing different MNOs to offer 5G services in different parts of the country.

In addition, the report said regulators should ensure 5G spectrum is offered to new players in a timely, inexpensive and non-complex way.

The study also argued that a pan-EU approach to assigning spectrum would be beneficial, including harmonisation in the 26GHz band, to enable EU-wide 5G.

The report said: “There is a risk of fragmentation in national approaches if final decisions are made without coordination between Member States. This could further limit the opportunity for harmonised deployment of some of the possible services in the 26 GHz band across the EU and limit the potential benefits."

According to the study, operators and regulators generally favour continuing the current regime, while other vertical industries would consider any process as long as it met their needs and supported their investment timescales.

The report's authors wrote that the study “had determined that whilst stakeholders would generally prefer to continue licensing spectrum on an exclusive, individual basis, wider adoption of a greater variety of spectrum assignment approaches would benefit the introduction of 5G services, unlocking some of the new use cases whilst supporting Digital Single Market objectives.”

The report was conducted by spectrum management specialist LS telcom, research firm PolicyTracker and consultancy firm VVA for the European Commission.

It combined interviews with policymakers with available data from current spectrum assignments, as well as examining the implications of possible future use cases enabled by 5G.

The study was published ahead of an EU Council meeting today (24 October) which will examine and discuss the EU’s digital objectives.

Last week saw CEOs from over 30 European telcos call on the EU to support investment by extending licence lengths.