One of the key challenges for mobile operators is the availability of 5G spectrum. Mobile operators’ 5G rollout plans are often closely linked to the spectrum availability made by regulators. 5G’s momentum, like many other segments of the economy, has been impacted by the global Covid-19 pandemic.

2020 was expected to be the year of 5G. As leading carriers had already launched 5G in 2019, the rollout of 5G was ramping up and new 5G-ready devices were in the product pipelines of major manufacturers.

Unfortunately, the virus outbreak has led to some regulators putting planned allocations/auctions on hold due to health and financial reasons. Meantime, operators are also seeing a significant spike in mobile data services over the last two months.

Spectrum allocation is key to 5G success

Some regulators recognize the need to move forward with 5G spectrum allocation. In New Zealand for example, the regulator has decided to directly allocate 5G spectrum in the 3.5GHz band to operators (Dense Air, Spark, and 2degrees) without conducting an auction.

It is also possible for auctions to be carried out while addressing health concerns. Regulators could set up online auctions or take extra precautions for on-site auctions. Hungary for example, had on-site health monitoring during its 5G auction process and enforced social-distancing precautions. The Hungarian regulator NMHH concluded the auction on March 26, 2020 giving operators access to spectrum in the 700 MHz, 2.1 GHz, and 3.6 GHz bands. NMHH has encouraged operators to install 5G at locations of social importance including hospitals and transport networks.

In the longer term, the regulator also views 5G playing a key role in economic development and enabling a faster recovery of the economy post-COVID.

Temporary relief measures have helped

In other jurisdictions, regulators undertook temporary relief measures to give mobile operators access to additional spectrum to increase network capacity. In the US for example, the FCC has allowed major operators Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular to temporarily borrow from existing licensees in the 600 MHz and AWS frequency bands (1700 MHz / 2100 MHz) for a 60-day period.

In Ireland, the regulator CommReg has allowed operators to utilize spectrum in the 700 MHz band on a temporary three-month basis. Further, the regulator will allow the 2.6 GHz band to be used at select locations such as hospitals and allow operators to utilize the 2.1 GHz band for 4G as well as the previously assigned 3G.

Licensed shared access can improve spectrum efficiency

Besides these temporary relief measures, there are other techniques that can be used to improve efficiency. The licensed shared access (LSA) or shared spectrum approach allows licensees to access underutilized licensed spectrum while protecting incumbent user from harmful interference. FCC’s authorization of the 3.5 GHz CBRS band is one example.

This allows operators to access spectrum that is not used by the incumbent licensees in a particular geographical area to offer 5G services. Some operators are also looking at dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) for re-farming existing 4G spectrum for 5G. In Germany for instance, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone Germany have recently indicated the use of DSS to accelerate their 5G coverage expansion by using spectrum previously used for 4G or 3G.

New possibilities with 5G

5G is not just 4G with faster speeds. A technology ecosystem is now being developed around 5G to enable many new possibilities. Particularly in the enterprise space, 5G will become an important element of the corporate network that drives innovation, business transformation and productivity. Combining the ultra-low latency characteristic of 5G with network slicing and edge computing, different players are collaborating to develop solutions for a myriad of industry-specific use cases. The pandemic is slowing down 5G rollout to some extent, but in the longer term, 5G and the ecosystem around it will be a major contributor to the economy touching all industry sectors; and facilitate economic recovery.

Spectrum availability will be a constant challenge

However, the availability of 5G spectrum will be a constant challenge. There are different approaches that regulators can adopt to improve efficiency. However, it is crucial that regulators provide greater transparency and visibility into their planning and allocation timeframe as well as regulatory changes to the use of spectrum (e.g., sharing and leasing). Greater certainty on availability will enable mobile operators to plan their investment and activities to get new 5G services to the market in a timely manner.

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