OPINION: Is Europe’s 5G spectrum strategy falling behind?

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Europe's penchant for hands-on regulation could damage 5G's deployment before it properly starts, writes Dimitris Mavrakis, ABI Research

The 5G market is currently expanding rapidly, with initial deployments happening faster than expected. This is in contrast with previous generations that appeared at least six months after operators had first announced them and years after the official 3GPP standard was frozen. With 5G, initial standards-based deployments will be commercialised six to eight months after the Release 15 5G New Radio (NR) standard has been frozen, indicating that there will be a significant appetite not only to be a technology leader but also to satisfy traffic demand in the market. At the moment, 5G is positioned as a mobile broadband enhancement, with key central urban locations being first to enjoy higher speeds and lower latencies with the new standard. 

The new key aspect of 5G will be the introduction of new spectrum, as the increase in link spectral efficiency (i.e., how many bits per second can fit into a single hertz of spectrum over a single-input, single-output link) from 4G to 5G will not be sufficient to cope with the increasing traffic demand. This means that more spectrum will naturally be required as traffic demand increases, irrespective of network generation. Auctions in the likes of Italy, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom, among many others, have equipped operators with spectrum in the crucial mid-3GHz band, as well as other frequencies.

A typical amount of 5G spectrum allocated per mobile service provider worldwide in bands below 6 GHz is approximately 50 MHz to 75 MHz in completed auctions at a time when most operators already own more than 50 MHz of spectrum that is already allocated to 4G. However, previous traffic forecasts and mobile broadband deployments have illustrated that a new generation—and a potential jump in user experience and data speeds—will bring forth a significant traffic uptake. This means that the less than 6 GHz spectrum will soon be exhausted after initial urban deployments. The next step is to look at mmWave spectrum for dense urban environments to satisfy this increasing data demand. Mobile service providers in South Korea are rumoured to be planning a 5G launch with both 3.5 GHz and mmWave frequencies, exactly for this reason. The dense urban environment of western Europe will also be subject to the same traffic demands, but European administrations have still not cemented a forward-looking strategy for mmWave spectrum regulation.

5G mmWave Spectrum Activities in Europe

The 5G NR standard has identified key spectrum bands for mmWave in the 24–30 GHz frequency range (bands n257, n258, and n261) as well as the 37-40 GHz range (band n260). Given that the focus of any mobile service provider is to deploy in the lowest frequency possible, more focus has been given to the lower bands (near the 24–26 GHz range), and early smartphones are expected to support mainly these bands.

While there are a few countries who have already allocated mmWave spectrum for 5G, regulators worldwide are currently arranging spectrum auctions. For example, South Korea has already auctioned 28 GHz spectrum for 5G in June 2018, and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched its first mmWave auction in November 2018. The 28 GHz band (n257)—although standardised in 3GPP Release 15 and expected to be the first mmWave band in which 5G products will become available—is not under study in the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC-19). WRC-19 will identify certain frequencies for mobile broadband in the radio regulations. 

European administrations have also put stringent requirements in place for the 26 GHz band (24.25–27.5 GHz) that will likely hamper the deployment of 5G mmWave. The E.U. Electronic Communications Committee (ECC) decision for this band contains a value of -42 dBW per 200 MHz of spectrum for unwanted emissions from 5G base stations—meaning that the transmitted power of 5G mmWave base stations in Europe will be very restricted and will likely make the deployment of outdoor 5G networks in this range impractical.

There are two reasons the ECC has mandated this stringent limit: one is for the protection of Earth Exploration Satellite Services (EESS) in the European continent and the second is that transmissions above the horizontal level are to be restricted. The EESS services range from 23.6 GHz to 24 GHz. Given that mmWave deployments will likely be driven by small cells and local microcells at best, this restriction pretty much constrains many possible connection scenarios between a base station and a user, complicating network planning and dimensioning. 

A group of signatories that include Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Huawei, Nokia, BT, Telefonica and others have compiled an open letter to the ECC, asking that the power restriction is lessened from -32 dBW to -37 dBW per 200 MHz. Several vendors have also performed studies at the -37 dBW level of restriction, concluding that even this level will cause a significant impact on 5G coverage, performance, and deployment costs. This stringent requirement also requires a minimum of 1–1.5 GHz separation between the 5G network and the EESS system, meaning that the lower part of the 26 GHz band (i.e., 24.25–25.5 GHz) will be inaccessible for 5G use.

The 28 GHz band is also a complex issue in Europe. The European regulatory framework has allocated the 27.5–29.5 GHz frequencies for broadband satellite and fixed backhaul links as well as Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) services, stating that these frequencies are therefore inaccessible for 5G mobile broadband. To summarise, European regulation has implemented stringent requirements for the 24–26 GHz bands while restricting the use of 28 GHz completely. This would put European mobile service providers at a serious disadvantage compared with operators in other regions and therefore would affect their ability to procure the latest handsets and enjoy the economies of scale both global mmWave bands would enjoy.

The 4G market has shown that a level of spectrum harmonization across the world is necessary to kick-start economies of scale in the handset business. Fragmentation between regions in the mmWave bands will mean that device manufacturers will need to create several variants of their handsets, and this will delay widespread commercial success and popular, cost-effective smartphones. With 4G, spectrum fragmentation was limited to below the 2.6 GHz range, where Radio Frequency Front Ends (RFFEs) and smartphone antennas could be designed to connect to several bands at once. On the other hand, with mmWave bands having a frequency separation of more than 1 GHz, it will be impossible to create a single multimode RFFE and handset antennas that connect to more than one band. The requirement for spectrum harmonization with 5G mmWave is much more important than 4G. 

What Can European Regulators Do?

As 5G commercial deployments commence, it is becoming clear that monetisation in enterprise verticals will be a challenge for mobile service providers as network slicing and Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC) business models are undefined and unexplored. It is for this reason that the deployment of 5G Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) needs to be as cost effective and straightforward as possible—meaning that the global spectrum map needs to be simple. In Europe, restrictions in the 26 GHz band and inaccessibility to the 28 GHz band mean that mmWave will be a much slower process than anticipated, restricting the use of 5G mmWave in the continent and potentially slowing down the development of the technology globally.

In the United States, the FCC has placed realistic transmission requirements on the 28 GHz band, which will create a flourishing value chain. The same needs to happen in Europe and across the world. In an ideal situation, the ECC should relax the stringent requirements it has placed on the 26 GHz band and reallocate parts of the spectrum in the 28 GHz band to mobile—in particular, the portions of the spectrum that are allocated for the fixed backhaul and FWA use case. This can be done by allowing flexibility in the current licenses to use the spectrum for either backhaul, FWA, or 5G NR mobile broadband access, as was done in the United States. A consistent global strategy for 5G spectrum in both bands will help infrastructure vendors, handset manufacturers, and mobile service providers to bring the technology to the market sooner. However, at the moment Europe is lagging behind in terms of mmWave strategy and restricting the use of this critical 5G component at a time where the value chain is in a very fragile state. European regulators should position 5G as an enterprise value enabler rather than as a mobile broadband technology, and this needs to start with spectrum regulation.