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Telcos face 5G rollout challenges due to inadequate spectrum

Indian telcos may find 5G rollout tough because of inadequate spectrum in the sub-GHz frequency band.

Most of the spectrum available for auction are in the higher frequency bands which makes it inappropriate for mass coverage.

While spectrum in the 700 MHz band is ideal and is available for 5G services, its reserve price will have to be drastically reduced, according to experts.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is set to announce its pricing recommendations for the 5G spectrum next week.

According to experts, it will be especially important for the regulator to make the pricing for sub-GHz bands affordable for operators.

While telcos are seeking price cuts on 5G spectrum across the board, if substantive cuts are not made on sub-GHz (below 1000 MHz) bands such as 700MHz and 600MHz, operators will find it difficult to set up a robust 5G network with deep coverage.

Operators are gearing up for 5G auctions and await the regulator’s recommendations on the base price of the 5G spectrum.

The biggest question on everyone’s mind is how the regulator prices “the crucial 5G spectrum” which is the mid-band spectrum (3.5GHz) and millimetre wave (25.25-28.5GHz).

The reason why most of the interest is in these bands is because of the multifold amount of spectrum available in these frequencies.

However, these high-frequency bands have poor coverage as they are unable to penetrate concrete walls (indoors) or cannot drive deep rural coverage. For that, lower frequency bands like 700MHz and 600MHz, which are currently lying fallow., are needed.

In their submissions to the TRAI, during the consultation process for 5G pricing, operators also underscored the importance of lower frequency bands spectrum in particular to drive deep coverage.

However these brands are highly-priced. For instance, 700MHz, which was put out for auction two times, in 2015 and 2018 remained unsold. According to experts, it is imperative for the TRAI to drive down price of these bands significantly.

The common belief of the industry is that the TRAI is unlikely to reduce the price of 700MHz and 600MHz below similar bands (800MHz 900MHz) already sold to the operators for 4G purposes. In case the regulator follows this expectation, telcos will likely not buy much sub-GHz spectrum or may not buy any at all.

A top telecom executive told BusinessLine, “The major focus for operators in the upcoming 5G auctions will be to acquire mm-wave and mid-band spectrum since these are important to set up the core 5G network.”

Service coverage
When asked about the coverage issue, the executive said that they will use the lower frequency spectrum that they already own ranging from 800-2300MHz.

The main issue with this, however, as per experts is that for most operators, all of their sub-GHz spectra in the 800-900MHz range is already in use for their 4G networks.

While they might have some ability to manoeuvre and scrounge up spectrum in the 1800MHz, 2100MHz, and 2300MHz range it still does not have the ability to deliver the quality of services that a 5G network deployed in sub-GHz bands can.

Even for offering the range of services that 5G promises from network slicing, to private networks, enterprise applications, according to top technologists, sub GHz bands are preferred.

“In fact, in order to deliver higher quality existing services such as voice on 5G, you will need additional sub-GHz spectrum,” an expert told BusinessLine.

From a consumer’s perspective, operators getting hands-on more sub-GHz spectrum will mean that they will not run into issues such as losing network while taking an elevator, entering a building or a basement. More importantly, getting 5G to rural India gets easier on sub-GHz spectrum.

Reliance Jio, in fact, struggled to roll out the 4G network until it was able to acquire the 800MHz band.

Analysts also argue that technology exists to set up 5G networks without much sub GHz spectrum, “operators can set up 5G networks such as setting up non-stand-alone networks, re-farming existing 4G networks or through dynamic spectrum sharing,” said a top executive working at a major network vendor. However, the executive also admitted that access to additional sub-GHz spectrum will be a simpler solution.

Low frequency bands
Globally as well, top telecom operators are moving towards deploying 5G networks in sub-GHz bands. China Mobile is building its 5G network using 700MHz frequency band in addition to the required high-frequency bands for 5G. American operators, Verizon, AT&T and T Mobile, all use sub-GHz bands (850 MHz, 850MHz and 600MHz respectively).

In its submissions to the TRAI, Bharti Airtel in fact told the regulator that the Government should consider allocating 700MHz to operators with high rollout obligations. Jio wants the market-determined 800MHz band to be used as the value for 700MHz. Jio has also submitted to the regulator that 2*20MHz of sub-GHz spectrum per operator will be preferred for the initial rollout of 5G.

TRAI’s pricing of the spectrum will be instrumental in determining how robust 5G coverage will actually be. The Hindu BusinessLine

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