Carriers boost LTE with refarmed spectrum

Mobile operators round the world are increasingly turning to refarmed 2G - and even 3G - spectrum to accelerate their moves into LTE, when new spectrum is unavailable or insufficient because of delayed auctions.
In India, Videocon plans to enter the 4G space using 1.8GHz frequencies while troubled Thai incumbent TOT aims to use much of its 2.1-GHz 3G band for LTE.
Videcon acquired 1.8-GHz GSM airwaves in November' auction, when the Indian regulator re-sold 122 2G licences cancelled after a corruption scandal. Although this spectrum was originally allocated for GSM, 2G ARPUs in India are the lowest in the world and Videocon, like others, may look to harness at least some of their holdings for a rapid move into higher value LTE data services.
The operator says it will go live with LTE in the second half of this year. The 1.8-GHz band is being heavily refarmed round the world and is likely to overtake the US 700-MHz frequencies as the most commonly used LTE spectrum during this year.
Therefore there is a growing base of affordable devices, and this was highlighted when Apple supported 1.8-GHz in the iPhone 5, but not the 2.6-GHz and 800-MHz options – the most common ones to be newly auctioned in Europe and other regions. However, many sales of these new bands will not take place for a year or more, and so carriers need more short term routes to market.
Videocon will also be able to use FDD-LTE, the more common branch of the standard, and so may gain some device advantages over current 4G operators in India, which are using the TDD BWA spectrum auctioned in 2011. Bharti Airtel has gone live in this spectrum while Reliance Infotel is the only player with nationwide holdings. Infotel, along with Aircel and Tikona Digital, will launch TD-LTE services in the second half of this year.
Videocon may have to convince the regulator, TRAI, of its plans. It insists the terms of its new licences are “liberalized”, allowing it to offer data and video services as well as voice, for which 1.8-GHz is traditionally used, and to deploy any technology. Arvind Bali, director and CEO of Videocon Mobile Services, told the Telegraph India newspaper: “Following a successful spectrum allocation, we seek to provide subscribers with enhanced 4G network across the newly won circles in the second half of 2013 which will enable deliverance of best services and great value-for-money products to consumers.”
Videocon won spectrum in the operating circles of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Gujarat, east and west Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand.
The Indian authorities have reduced the reserve price for the upcoming auction of 800MHz by half, after the CDMA spectrum failed to attract bidders before the holiday, because of high base fees. Operators had hoped for a 75% reduction however. The 2G spectrum is being re-auctioned after corruption scandals surrounding the original sales. The frequencies at issue are currently operated by Tata, AFK Sistema and Reliance Communications. The new sale will be held in March. Earlier this month, the government approved a 30% cut in the reserve prices for 1.8GHz GSM licences, which also failed to sell in several key operation regions. These could be re-farmed for LTE.
In Thailand, the state-owned telco TOT is to launch LTE in capital Bangkok on February 24, running on between 100 and 200 3G base stations, upgraded to enable LTE as well. This sees TOT trying to escape from current business troubles by fast-tracking its 4G transition. It has very limited 3G capacity and may set a trend expected to be increasingly common in economies which have adopted 3G at a late stage – leapfrogging HSPA altogether and building mobile broadband services entirely around LTE.
This sees TOT using a currently unusual spectrum option for first-phase LTE – the 2.1GHz 3G band. TOT had earlier announced it would switch on 5,320 3G base stations in Bangkok and major cities by mid-2012 but the plans were delayed by various scandals and upheavals, including the departure of successive teams of directors.

However, it now plans to expand its roll-out to 4,000 base stations this February and is investigating whether to change a plan to build out 15,000 more base stations in phase two of its 3G rollout, and instead go straight to LTE. TOT originally launched 3G at the end of 2009 but the network is sparse and scarcely used because of a history of political and regulatory hitches, and poor management. TOT's board resigned en masse in September 2012 amid accusations of corruption.