A smarter approach to 5G spectrum management
As Dr. Konstantinos Stavropoulos, technical marketing lead at Amdocs says, a crucial element of the proposed new Electronic Communications Code relates to radio spectrum, as follows:
“Better use of radio-frequencies: Reducing divergences between regulatory practices across the EU is particularly relevant in the area of radio spectrum, which is the key raw material for wireless communications. The Code proposes long license durations, coupled with more stringent requirements to use spectrum effectively and efficiently.
It also proposes to coordinate basic parameters such as the timing of assignments to ensure timely release of spectrum to the EU market and more converged spectrum policies across the EU with the aim to provide full wireless coverage across the EU.”
While the statement about “more stringent requirements to use spectrum effectively and efficiently” is open to interpretation, there are definitive implications for member states as well as service providers who operate mobile networks in the EU. And what this statement implies is also relevant to the EU Digital Single Market and 5G Action Plan initiatives.
The EU has already indicated its wish for every member state to introduce 5G in at least one major city by 2020. 5G is regarded as essential in improving mobile user experience and driving growth, so it is unsurprising that the EU wants to ensure a smooth and timely rollout of 5G. This would contrast with 4G, which has not been a success story in Europe.
The fragmented 4G rollout, at different times and with varying regulatory rules per member state, is what the EU would now like to avoid. The establishment of common practices for spectrum allocation and overall management would create a unified and more favourable business environment across the EU countries.
The need for a consistent regulatory framework – including the harmonisation and affordability of spectrum – is indubitable. At the same time, it is important to discuss how spectrum could be managed effectively and efficiently in practice. Actually, this discussion is not EU specific and would also apply to non-EU countries interested in 5G.
The use of spectrum-efficient technologies is one area to look into. The latest network technologies such as 5G are more spectrally efficient than previous generations. In these terms, countries and service providers should be deploying newer technologies. On the other hand, it is possible to make better use of existing network resources through continuous optimisation, of static or dynamic (e.g. automated network optimisation) nature.
Spectrum licensing is another key topic. According to the current licensing model, service providers who have purchased spectrum can continue to use it, unless they end up with an excessively high percentage of frequency bands after acquiring other service providers. Whether they use these spectrum resources optimally is not part of their regulatory obligations, with the exception of minimum network area coverage rules.
As spectrum resources are limited, the requirement to start using them effectively and efficiently may become the norm. The “use it or share it” approach is being discussed now. It is also related with governmental initiatives, such as the FCC Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) scheme in the US, which aims to make better use of available spectrum.
So, how would this work? Potentially, more than one service provider would get access to a spectrum band, and an advanced spectrum sharing mechanism would be put in place, similar to the tiered CBRS Spectrum Access System. In this way, a number of providers would ensure that spectrum resources are – almost – always used. A similar approach could even apply to unlicensed spectrum, which is gaining in significance.
Alternatively, a governmental authority would check how well the spectrum that a service provider has acquired is used. Following such checks, the service provider could be asked to optimise the use of or share their resources with other providers, for example through leasing. This wholesale model is also part of the 5G narrative, and the way 5G is expected to change how service providers run their business, above and beyond the current MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) model.
For such checks to take place, a spectrum efficiency index would be required. Similar to the energy efficiency index, this would highlight potential issues in the use of spectrum. Of course, the definition of this index is far from straightforward. A number of criteria (including the area covered by spectrum, the actual use of spectrum by customers, regional user needs, etc.) would need to be considered. And as high frequency bands are to be used in 5G, the 3-dimensional spatial domain (e.g. floors covered per building) may also become relevant.
Whether this spectrum efficiency index is linked with incentives and/or penalties for service providers – and potentially country members in the EU case – remains to be seen. Ultimately, how spectrum will be allocated and used for 5G is part of the 5G business case.
It is in the service providers’ interests to use their resources optimally in order to maximise the return on their network investment. Sharing – as part of a broader need to share network infrastructure – may turn out to be a key 5G deployment strategy. If the approach followed by service providers is suboptimal, it could be their customers who ‘reward’ or ‘punish’ them rather than any governmental/supranational authority.
Similarly, unless spectrum – the lifeblood of wireless networks – is managed optimally, 5G will be unable to deliver the benefits expected by customers and national economies, not just in EU but also worldwide. A smarter approach to spectrum management is really a more intelligent approach to ensuring that the 5G deployment will enhance the way we live and work, in an effective and efficient manner.
The author of this blog is Dr. Konstantinos Stavropoulos, Technical Marketing lead at Amdocs
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