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5G auction could be derailed if tussle for spectrum not resolved quickly

Reliance Jio has opposed a move under consideration by the government to fragment the crucial millimetre wave band (mmWave) for 5G services in order to meet the claims of satellite communications’ service players.

The big players in the satellite space include Bharti Airtel’s Sunil Mittal’s OneWeb and Elon Musk’s Starlink which are making an entry into India.

The proposal being considered is to offer for auction only the spectrum between 24.5 – 28.5 GHZ in the mmWave band for 5G mobile operators, instead of the 3GPP standardized band which is up to 29. 5 GHZ and is being used globally for 5G in Japan, South Korea, Norway, and Taiwan, among others.

Instead, the 1 GHz band will be earmarked only for satellite communications’ services companies who are also demanding that it should be given through an administered price rather than auctioning. As a result, the total spectrum availability for mobile operators for 5G in the mmWave band will be substantially reduced.

Jio has informed the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) that it is not in favour of a view which is emerging in the government for a staggered and piecemeal auctioning of the 5G bands. Under this, the mid band 3300-3670 will be put on the block first and a decision on the auctioning of the mmWave band will be taken later (the process for deciding its base price has just begun after the DoT reference to TRAI).

Jio says that both these moves, if implemented, will have disastrous consequences for the roll out of 5G services and potentially jeopardise the efforts the government has made recently to revitalize the telecom sector. A spokesperson declined to comment on the issue.

Telecom analysts warn that if these contentious issues are not resolved soon, the 5G auction which is slated to be held next January could be delayed again.

The other contentious issue which could delay the auctioning even further is that telcos, under the aegis of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), have made it clear that the demand of satellite service providers for administrative allocation of spectrum in the mmWave band is not legally tenable. They argue for a level playing field because the Supreme Court has already scrapped such arbitrary policies in favour of the allocation of spectrum through auction.

However, Sunil Mittal’s One Web is pushing for administrative allocation of spectrum for its broadband services, saying that it is the method of allocation globally. Satellites require spectrum in various bands in order to connect the satellite with the ground station as well as to customers.

With a lack of clarity on which spectrum will be offered administratively (like satellite broadband as well as backhaul for towers) and which through auction, discussions are also on for a separate Spectrum Act to resolve these issues but this again will take time.

Telcos say that to build an efficient network, they will require at least 1GHz in the beginning followed by 2GHz per operator in the millimetre band. But if part of this is earmarked for satellite communications, such a network will not be possible. They also reiterate that the DoT committee set up in 2017 had earmarked the entire band for mobile services.
Already as many as 44 countries have invested in 5G networks across the entire 24.5 GHZ to 29.5 GHZ space.

Telcos like Jio point out that they require adequate spectrum in mid as well as the high band to plan an efficient network for 5G services. The millimetre band is crucial because it provides the capacity required for enhanced mobile broadband and ultra-low latency – the key ingredients for a successful 5G business.

Further, they argue that a simultaneous availability of both the spectrum bands is essential for network planning, reduction in costs and investments, and the setting up of EDGE data centres. Business Standard

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