Mobile broadband requires more spectrum

As the rollout of mobile broadband services gains pace around the world, demand is growing for more spectrum to be made available. With many countries having embarked on, or formulating plans for, the release of new frequencies, the identification, licensing and management of spectrum is of growing concern for governments, regulators and operators.
In Europe, the EU’s Radio Spectrum Policy Program (RSPP) has identified a need for 1200MHz of spectrum to be made available in the region for wireless-broadband services by 2015, but only just over half has been earmarked or freed up either in the form of the new 2.6GHz and digital-dividend bands or by opening up the 2100MHz, 1800MHz and 900MHz bands for new mobile broadband services, such as LTE. This still leaves a requirement for an additional 500-600MHz of spectrum to be found by end-2015.
A number of bands previously unavailable for mobile broadband services are under consideration. These include the L-band at around 1400MHz, currently used for terrestrial DAB and satellite broadcasting; the mobile satellite services (MSS) band at around 2GHz; the 2300MHz TDD band, already licensed in India and expected to be adopted in China but thus far unavailable in Europe; the 3400-3600MHz bands, which have been licensed but remain unused in many European countries; and the TV-white-space bands at below 700MHz.
The 1400MHz band
A significant opportunity for freeing up additional new mobile broadband spectrum in Europe by the RSPP’s 2015 target date is offered by the largely unused 1400MHz band (1452-1492MHz), which is currently designated for broadcast services. The band could be particularly attractive for operators who have little sub-1GHz spectrum, because it provides cost and coverage benefits, primarily in urban areas.
A study carried out on behalf of Ericsson and Qualcomm proposes using the 1400MHz band to address the growing asymmetry between downlink and uplink traffic, quoted by various operators as being between the ratios of 4-to-1 and 10-to-1 downlink-to-uplink. Capacity can be added by providing a supplemental downlink for FDD-based mobile broadband services using unpaired spectrum, in an approach similar to that being explored by AT&T in the US using spectrum acquired from Qualcomm.
Such an approach could provide support for unicast, multicast and broadcast content as well as interactive services.
The band is the subject of a CEPT working group and is also being studied as part of the RSPP. The band is expected to be adopted in the 3GPP specifications by 2013, with spectrum being freed up and chipsets developed within the same timescale. Equipment supporting the band could be available by 2014-15.
Outside Europe, the 1400MHz band is also available in various countries, though not in the US or China.
The prospect of new bands such as 1400MHz being opened up for mobile broadband services can only add to the issue of spectrum fragmentation, however, something which is already challenging device suppliers as they strive to integrate support for multiple LTE bands into their new products.
Digital dividend
According to the influential Radio Spectrum Policy Group (RSPG) – the body whose task is to advise the European Commission and the EU Parliament about future spectrum policy, including the RSPP – 2011 was a key year for EU member states in devising their strategies for releasing the digital-dividend spectrum to mobile communications. Germany, Italy, Sweden and Spain have already assigned the 800MHz band, while many others have launched public consultations
However, the overall picture of spectrum licensing that emerges across Europe is a fragmented one, with significant variations in the approaches adopted by different regulators, especially regarding the 2.6GHz and digital-dividend bands.
One point of contention is the degree to which operators’ existing holdings of 900MHz spectrum should be counted as part of an overall allowance of spectrum below 1GHz for the purposes of any new allocations of digital-dividend spectrum. Several regulators, including Germany’s BNetzA, argue that 900MHz holdings should count, whereas operators with 900MHz holdings, such as Norway’s Telenor, are challenging this approach on the basis that the two bands cannot be substituted for each other.
Telenor opposes a spectrum cap being proposed by the Norwegian regulator as part of that country’s 800MHz licensing round, originally slated for 2011 but now likely to be held in the first half of this year. The cap would restrict Telenor’s 800MHz holding to 2x10MHz, but the operator argues that 2x20MHz is necessary for effective coverage of its territory and says that its own base stations already support 2x20MHz LTE, as will handsets and devices.
In France, the interval between licensing of the 2.6GHz and 800MHz bands has come in for criticism, while in Spain the delay between the licensing of the 800MHz band and the spectrum becoming available for commercial use is causing operators to adapt their plans. Spectrum in the 800MHz band will only be freed up toward the end of 2014, constituting a considerable delay in achieving a return on the licensees’ investment. Operators are expected to use the immediately available spectrum in the 2.6GHz band for LTE (because refarmed spectrum in the ex-GSM-only bands will initially be used for WCDMA services), until spectrum in the 800MHz band is freed up.
The implications of these and other licensing rounds will be watched keenly in the UK, where regulator Ofcom has announced that it will further delay auctioning the 2.6GHz and 800MHz spectrum until late this year at the earliest. Ofcom’s extended consultation period, which appears designed to be fair to all parties, has in fact led to growing frustration.
In its latest announcement, Ofcom has proposed reserving spectrum to ensure that a fourth bidder emerges successfully from the auction process, although this may not necessarily provide such an operator with access to the most valuable 800MHz spectrum. In addition, Ofcom has extended the indoor coverage obligation attaching to one of the licenses to include 98% of the population, in an approach designed to boost rural broadband coverage in a similar way to that adopted in Germany.
Ofcom insists meanwhile that the delays in its licensing plans will not materially affect the timing of the launch of 4G services in the UK.
Julian Bright is a senior analyst and part of Informa Telecoms & Media’s Networks team