HK Operators Slam Regulator Over 5G Spectrum Plans

Robert Clark
News Analysis
Robert Clark
2/17/2017
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Hong Kong operators have confronted the government over its sedate timetable for issuing 5G spectrum, warning the city risks falling behind other markets.

Anna Yip, CEO of the third-largest operator SmarTone, this week called on regulator Ofca to speed its 5G timetable.

"We urge the government to accelerate the supply of spectrum to the market and provide a clear road map," Yip said. "This is crucial for long-term industry planning."

Ofca last issued fresh spectrum in 2013 and won't release any new frequencies until 2020 at the earliest.

SmarTone rival HKT -- the biggest local operator (and previously known as PCCW) -- has been in a war of words with the government for the past month. It says the self-governing Chinese city is "seriously lagging behind" other markets in preparation for 5G.

It has accused Ofca of deliberately sitting on spectrum so it can maximize revenue from future auctions.

"[W]hile all other major markets are making more spectrum available (including clearing inefficient spectrum users and re-farming spectrum bands), the Hong Kong Government has no clear plans to meet the community's need for new services, new investment and new innovation," the company said in a 12-page paper.

This was not acceptable, it said. Failure to release new spectrum will choke the growth of the mobile services sector, with "negative knock-on effects in all sectors of Hong Kong's economy."

It notes that the EU and the UK have "swiftly and publicly committed" to assigning 700MHz and 3.5GHz bands for 5G launch by 2020.

Currently the UK has 662MHz mobile spectrum in use, compared with Hong Kong's 582MHz. But whereas the British regulator plans to issue another 190MHz during the next three years, Hong Kong will not release any.

The operators have support from the IT industry legislator, Charles Mok. "We are much delayed in spectrum planning for 5G," he told Light Reading. "The government won't acknowledge that they need to start work on cleaning up the 3.4-3.6GHz range for 5G."

He raised the issue at a legislative hearing last week, but officials said they couldn't move until ITU standards were finalized in 2020.

"But our competitors, including Japan and Korea, are going to launch in 2018, and even China is also aiming for a 2020 5G launch," he adds.

Ofca described HKT's criticisms as "reckless and unreasonable."

It says the 3.4-3.6 GHz range is occupied by satellite services. It has no plans to move them and says mobile players will have to carry out technical trials to test if they can cohabit those frequencies.

The aim is to make 700-800MHz frequencies available by 2020 after ending analog TV services.

It also says about 35MHz of spectrum is available for mobile services in the 1.9-2.2GHz bands but no operator has shown interest in it.

Hong Kong is currently one of the world's most mobile-intensive markets, with a penetration rate of 232% and data use growing at 61% CAGR over the period 2010-2015.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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