Mobile infrastructure company Arqiva believes there is a strong commercial case for using 5G technology to address broadband demand in London.
Nicolas Ott, Arqiva's managing director for telecom and M2M, reckons the lack of fiber-connected premises in the UK capital city leaves a big gap that Arqiva can target with a 5G-based offering.
Instead of serving consumers directly, Arqiva has flagged interest in offering wholesale services to retail service providers, which could include mobile operators it already counts as wholesale customers.
Like Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) in the US, it plans to use 28GHz spectrum to support a 5G-based fixed wireless access (FWA) service. It already owns a nationwide license and earlier this week bought additional 28GHz frequencies covering the London area from a managed services provider called Luminet. (See Arqiva Bags Extra 28GHz UK License, Eyes 5G Launch.)
"FWA will have relevance for all households not covered by FTTP/H [fiber to the premises/home]," said Ott in comments emailed to Light Reading. "We do, however, anticipate that London will require more spectrum capacity due to its current and increasing density -- hence our purchase of additional spectrum."
Ott estimates that less than 1% of UK premises are connected to FTTP/H networks today and says penetration in London is not believed to be much greater. "This leaves a clear gap for us to target," he says.
He also thinks that 5G as an FWA technology will offer "comparable performance" to FTTP/H "with a much easier rollout," and that it will be superior to the G.fast technology in which fixed-line incumbent BT is currently investing.
By 2020, BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) plans to connect about 10 million premises across the UK to G.fast technology, which boosts connection speeds over last-mile copper loops. BT has said it will be able to support connection speeds of between 300 Mbit/s and 500 Mbit/s using G.fast.
It also aims to extend fiber networks to about 2 million UK premises by the same date but has come under competitive and regulatory pressure to announce more ambitious FTTP/H targets. (See BT to Cover 2M Homes With FTTP in $8.7B Plan.)
Despite Ott's optimism, there is skepticism that 5G can flourish as an FWA technology in more developed broadband markets.
Verizon appears keen to use it in areas that are hard to reach with fixed-line networks, and the FWA use case has attracted little interest from mobile operators in Europe generally.
Besides BT, Arqiva would also face competition from UK cable operator Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED), which is spending £3 billion ($3.9 billion) to extend its broadband networks to about two thirds of the population, from a previous level of just half. (See Virgin Media Plots £3B Invasion of BT Turf.)
Gigabit infrastructure rivalry could also come from a small wholesale operator called CityFibre that has big FTTH plans. Just this week, CityFibre announced plans for a £200 million ($259 million) share sale aimed partly at funding the deployment of FTTH networks in five to ten UK cities next year. (See CityFibre to Raise £200M, Ramp Up FTTH Challenge to BT.)
Arqiva's use of 28GHz spectrum also puts it at odds with UK regulatory authority Ofcom, which earlier this week told Light Reading that it saw the 26GHz band -- and "not 28GHz," which has previously been used by satellite players -- as the high-frequency band choice for 5G technology.
But Ott says there is no regulation to prevent companies from deploying 5G services over 28GHz airwaves. "While Ofcom considered the needs of satellite [services] when setting the licence conditions for the 28GHz band, all 28GHz licenses in the UK are held on a technology-neutral basis and are not 'reserved' for satellite services," he said.
Ott says he will be "surprised" if the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2019 does not identify 28GHz as a candidate band for 5G technology given the momentum behind it in some parts of the world.
"In terms of European support, we know the GSM Association considers the 28GHz band of particular interest given it has been permitted for 5G use in the US and is being closely examined by Japan and Korea," he says. "Additionally, the German regulator BNetzA has issued a spectrum plan that calls for examination of the frequency range at a European level."
He adds that all major equipment vendors are now developing hardware for use in the 28GHz band. Earlier this year Arqiva said it would carry out 5G-based FWA trials in the 28GHz band in partnership with South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC).
The very first 5G standard is due to be finalized by March 2018 as part of the 3GPP's Release 15 update, while the first commercial services based on that standard are expected to appear in 2019.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading