With its shortage of flourishing 5G technology champions, Europe already faces an uphill battle if it is to become a 5G pioneer ahead of Asia and North America. But its spectrum constraints are making the task even tougher.
Ignoring international conventions, the US, Japan and South Korea are eager to use the 28GHz frequency band for 5G. Replete with airwaves, this band could easily support the kind of ultra-high-speed services that a new 5G air interface promises. (See AT&T, Samsung & Friends Plot Crisp 5G Demos for the Fall and SK Telecom Targets Pre-Commercial 5G Deployment In 2017.)
European countries, among others, are not so keen. The 28GHz band is widely used by the satellite industry, which has been lobbying hard to prevent it from being snatched away. Instead, Europe is eyeing high-band frequencies in the 24.5-27.5GHz, 31.8-33.4GHz and 40.5-43.5GHz ranges. But it remains undecided about how to proceed. "The RSPG [Radio Spectrum Policy Group] intends to identify which one of these could be harmonized in Europe for early implementation," said the European Commission in a statement published this summer.
Settling on a candidate band is not straightforward. According to Amit Nagpal, a partner at spectrum advisory group Aetha Consulting, some frequency-rich bands clearly hold long-term value but might not be usable in the next few years. Others have the opposite problem: there are fewer airwaves but they are more immediately available.
Regardless of international resistance to 28GHz, technology giants such as Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Samsung Corp. will not be deterred from developing 28GHz-compatible kit given the size and wealth of the US, Japanese and South Korean markets. As a result, the spectrum fragmentation that has bedeviled 4G will also be a feature of the future 5G industry. (See Samsung Gets Ready to Shrink 5G Antennas & Chipsets.)
"Handsets will probably become available for that 28GHz band before [manufacturers] then build them for the European frequencies," says Nagpal. "Europe won't be happy about that but it's likely the reality."
Aside from arriving at a quick decision about candidate higher bands, is there anything Europe can do?
One priority is to look at freeing up lower-band spectrum for use with 5G. Apart from anything else, operators will not be able to rely on the really high bands outside very densely populated urban hotspots, simply because signals do not travel well over these frequencies.
In its summer statement, the RSPG identified spectrum in the 700MHz and 3.4-3.8GHz ranges as 5G-ready, going as far as claiming the latter ranges would constitute "the primary band suitable for the introduction of 5G use in Europe even before 2020."
Trouble is, these lower-band frequency ranges lack the quantity of spectrum needed to support a new, ultrafast 5G air interface. The RSPG optimistically notes that 3.4-3.8 GHz "consists of up to 400 MHz of continuous spectrum enabling wide channel bandwidth." But the amount available for use may vary considerably from one market to another.
That is often because these airwaves have already been awarded to companies launching telecom and broadband services. For example, in the UK, where regulatory authority Ofcom is planning to hold an auction of 3.4GHz spectrum, a company called UK Broadband Ltd. holds a license to provide broadband services (using TDD LTE) in this band.
Such organizations may, of course, see an opportunity to sell their licenses to mainstream operators plotting 5G launches. But that is not something regulatory authorities can influence while licensees are upholding their obligations.
And if there are constraints in these bands, the shortage of spectrum in the 700MHz range makes it entirely infeasible for use with a new 5G air interface, according to Nagpal.
To realize the speed potential of that air interface, operators will need to run services over 100MHz spectrum channels. Less than 100MHz is available across the entirety of the 700MHz band.
That means the "5G" services that do eventually get deployed in this range are more likely to be an evolution of 4G technology. "It'll be faster than LTE but not as fast as 5G in these really high frequency bands," says Nagpal.
How quickly Asian and North American regulators can free up 28GHz spectrum remains to be seen, but any opportunity for Europe to take a 5G lead will probably be restricted to the sub-6GHz area and much lower-speed services.
And whether that really qualifies as 5G at all is open to debate.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading