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Delicensed V band: To be or not to be

There is the threat of a storm  in Indian telecom and broadband circles over V bands. But experts question whether it’s A real storm or just a storm in a teacup?

At the heart of the debate is a disagreement over whether the V-band frequency of microwaves needs to be delicensed – as scores of other countries have done already – or not. As with all other hot-button issues, to find the best path forward, it’s time to strip away fiery rhetoric, the kisne-kisse-kya-kahan’s and focus on just the facts. And, indeed, a scientific analysis presents a clear win-win option on a platter.

Understanding the Indian E & V band debate
E and V bands are millimetric high frequency microwave spectrum.  In India and elsewhere, lower frequency microwave bands have been in use for more than 2 decades, with allocation  on an administrative basis, for the purpose of ‘back-hauling’ voice and data traffic from towers to towers to nodes and to core processing switches. E and V bands can serve heavy haul of data more effectively than lower frequency microwave and are extremely useful for today’s heavy data usage.

V-band has two sub-categories: a regular V band covering 57 – 64GHz, and an extended V band of 64 – 71 GHz. The higher-frequency E band is 71 – 76 GHz, and 81 – 86 GHz. The TRAI has recommended the delicensing of the 60 GHz band for both indoor- and outdoor-based applications, in line with most of the developed world and light touch regulations with administrative allocation, for E band. While the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) determines its final decision regarding the issue, these bands have needlessly been the subject of some intense debates.

Admittedly, there is a genuine need for Indian Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) or telcos to have suitable spectrum for backhaul connectivity for data over a few kilometres (about 5 or 6 km usually) in metros, towns and rural areas, in locations where it is impractical to dig to place underground optic fibre. Millimetric  microwave could possibly be considered for this requirement. However, the question naturally arises as to which is better for this – V band or E band or both? Meanwhile, we also need to appreciate that  delicensing the V band offers even startups and MSMEs (Micro, Small, and Medium sized Enterprises) with small budgets to fuel our economy with innovative and market-friendly devices without having to participate in cost-prohibitive auctions. It also provides the solution for a powerful WiFi medium that has fiber like capability for handling data. So, have to find the optimum way forward for both.

This E and V band delicensing debate can be settled by evaluating the properties of two bands, global trends, and economic benefits for the country.

V band
 V band is the Usain Bolt of Telecommunications. Just like the champion Olympic sprinter, it is very powerful over a short range of a few hundred metres.
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had earlier itself recognized the value of (Short Range Devices)SRDs and commonly-used frequencies in their National Frequency Allocation Plan of 2018. And now, it is time to lock down specifics in terms of how V band delicensing can be best leveraged for the benefit of the nation through use for SRDs as many countries are doing.

Ever since it was first used in 1995 to communicate between two satellites, it has been used in limited applications, like for the military.  But over time, the demand to use it for commercial applications has been growing rapidly due to the introduction of new technologies, like ‘Short Range Devices’ or SRDs that work best over V band, especially in the 57 – 64 GHz range. The large bandwidth allows for wide channelization (e.g. 2.16 GHz in 802.11ad. This supports high-speed links with 10 Gbps and higher data rates.

Consider SRDs like intelligent pacemakers for the heart. They transmit valuable signals in real-time to software on a computer in the vicinity. Modern-day ICUs have a variety of medical devices and equipment connected to each other 24×7 monitoring ECGs, heart rates, and other important parameters in real-time. Many even alert ICU staff in a timely manner when a patient is in distress.

For non-medical V band applications, think about a tech park building, with multiple computers connected together in a LAN (local area network). With India’s roaring IT-BPM industry, there are multiple video-conferences, and enormous data files analyzed and transmitted between departments located near each other. Closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs), Wi-Fi modems, and even bluetooth technology like smartphones, earphones, speakers, smart watches, and pedometers are SRDs. There are numerous SRD innovations developed every day, and over V band, they demonstrate superior performance.

The V band’s high-capacity over short distances is very attractive for SRDs in densely populated areas like urban metros, and satellite-to-satellite communications (crosslinks) at 43,000km above the earth (where oxygen is almost non-existent). However, its usefulness is reduced for terrestrial signals which need to travel over a few hundred metres due to oxygen absorption. Signal loss in a V band is 100 times faster than in its neigbouring bandwidths due to oxygen absorption. This is why it is not as useful for mobile access and backhaul that need to propagate over a few kilometers. Not therefore useful to telecom service providers or telcos.

E band
The E band is useful for many such applications but its unique properties make it quite useful for distances over 1 km. It is not attenuated by oxygen, which means it can maintain signal quality and strength over longer distances. This makes it more useful for backhaul applications for Telecom Service Providers to use.

Where is the Win-Win?
Promoting Indian Innovation
If V band is not delicensed in line with TRAI Recommendations of and repeated reiterations of 2015, 2017 & 2018, India will miss out on a slew of innovations lower-cost, connected smart devices on the Internet of Things. Without delicensed V band, India’s progress towards smart cities, homes, offices, and more will be greatly retarded. We will not be considered the cost-effective innovation hub of the world we aspire to be. And since the V band  travels only over very short ranges, and not efficient for mobile access and backhaul, why unnecessarily restrict their use for WiFi and SRDs?

Some TSPs may feel that V band delicensing offers a back-door entry for non-licensed players to offer regular mobile services. Such unauthorised entry is simply not possible given India’s Telecommunication’s  stringent approach to regulation and licensing. There are ample safeguards   Moreover, the V band cannot offer more than higher-quality downloads, uploads, and transmission over  very small distances. For any other communication, a carrier/core network operated by a licensed TSP is needed.

The process of attaining a mobile license is subject to heavy controls. In India, no one can set up a core network except authorized mobile access carriers. No one can haul and process traffic without a license. Telecom operators have to comply with all regulatory requirements to attain and keep valid licenses.

Only approved TSPs with a license can avail of the following important rights:

  1. The Right to interference-free spectrum available only through tightly-controlled auctions,
  2. The Right to PTSN and Inter-Connections which allows consumers to connect from a mobile to a landline phone, and also call people that have registered on another network,
  3. The Right to guaranteed unique phone numbers which is the only way to place calls and accurately connect two or more parties,
  4. The Right to set up network infrastructure such as towers, and dig and install fiber optic cables, a key part of expanding and offering mobile access services in the country.

Apart from licensed TSPs, no other entity will be able to offer these services – with or without V band use.

Extended V Band Allocation
A practical solution that offers the best way of addressing the telcos’ or TSP’s concerns  may be found in the extended V band: 64 – 71 GHz. This big stretch of a quantum of 7GHz V band equal in size to the regular V band could be reserved for the TSPs. In fact, since this extended V band does not suffer from oxygen attenuation and travels for several kilometers, it is more suitable for the telcos. The extended V band is also unsuitable for both SRDs and for WiFi.  Hence this equal quantum of 7 GHz spectrum can reserved for the TSPs to do whatever they want with it.

E Band Light-Licensing
Just like the TRAI recommended, the E band can be allocated in a ‘light licensing’ framework  and the TSPs  free to use it for their backhaul.

Economic Benefits of Delicensed V band:
Meanwhile, it is beneficial to learn what the experts say about economics of releasing the E and V bands in India in the delicensed mode. The NIPFP (National Institute of Public Finance and Policy), an autonomous  premier research institution conducted a study and published their results in their 2018 report, ‘The Economics of Releasing the V band and E band spectrum in India.’ In short, their conclusion was that for a country like India, where landline and fiber connection penetration is low outside of metros, the E and V bands are more likely to be relevant.

Additionally, the NIPFP estimates that with India’s population being four times that of the United States, we would probably see far higher economic benefit by releasing E and V bands from the burden of auctions and licenses. Studies in the United States estimate the value of delicensing spectrum bands to be about USD 250 billion.

The Indian consumer and the economywill be the main beneficiaries of progressive regulatory policies such as this for decades to come. These benefits are already being realized by other countries who delicensed their V bands.

International Delicensing of V Band
Over 70 countries have delicensed V bands to:

  • Provide much-needed bandwidth to device manufacturers to improve consumer experience with highly-connected devices that will boost the economy, and
  • Promote the proliferation of 5G-enabled devices and the Internet-of-Things (IoT) ecosystem of innovative products and services.

Many leading economies of the world have delicensed the 60Hz range V band and have not imposed specific channelization plans. This includes the United States, UK, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, and South Africa (see table). US, UK, Canada, and Brazil delicensed the entire band of 57-71 GHz, while China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia delicensed 57-64/66 GHz.

Country

Date of Adoption of License-Exempt 60 GHZ Band Framework

Austria Feb-09
Australia July-14
Belgium May-14
Brazil July-14
Canada Dec-10
China June-15
Japan May-14
Japan May-14
Korea April-13
Malaysia Feb-15
New Zealand Oct-14
Phillipines Jan-16
Poland Dec-14
Singapore April-13
Slovakia Feb-15
Spain Dec-11
South Africa Mar-15
Switzerland Jan-11
Switzerland Jan-11
UK Oct-10
US Dec-10

Ofcom, the UK regulator, combined spectrum in 59-64 GHz band for Fixed Wireless Systems and the 57-59 GHz band under one license-exempt authorization. Opening up this large bandwidth of spectrum was a game changer. The decision was made based on the fact that at such a high frequency over a short range, there is very low risk of interference, and therefore not a security threat.

In its July 2020 report on ‘Improving spectrum access for Wi-Fi,’ Ofcom notes that there are higher number of connected devices within existing bands at lower frequencies, and this can lead to a high congestion on more frequently-used bands, when many devices attempt to use the same Wi-Fi channel. They note that more than one Wi-Fi channel is required for mesh technologies to offer multi-media platforms for a home or office. Mesh technology is a network of connected Wi-Fi stations that cover a home or an office building and offer continuous wireless linkage and minimize dead zones.

There is no escaping the fact that consumer demand for higher throughput mesh technologies is rapidly skyrocketing – around the world, including in India.

Aligning with Supreme Court
Delicensing the V band does not violate the Supreme Court’s ruling on spectrum allocation for the 2G case. The Court clearly states that their rules on the distribution of spectrum applied only to the 2G case, “Court evaluated the validity of the methods adopted in the distribution of spectrum from September 2007 to March 2008.” Further, in the matter of Presidential Reference,  the court made it clear that “Auctions as a mode cannot be conferred the status of a constitutional principle.” They state that precious and scarce natural resources must not be alienated for commercial pursuits of profit-maximizing private entrepreneurs, but must be considered keeping social welfare in mind. This goes for both TSPs and any other private enterprise.

The Court specifies that, “auctions, an economic choice of disposal of natural resources, is not a constitutional mandate.” This means, the need to license or delicense is a purely techno-economical consideration. The overall benefit for the country as a whole is the most significant parameter to figure out the solution to this puzzle.

What maximizes the benefit for the country, the economy, and the Indian consumer? This must be our guiding light to weather through this storm successfully. Delicensing V band, light licensing for E band, and auctions for extended V band can be the best win-win for our country. TSPs will also be able to avail of the V and E band spectrum at the same cost that others can – which means, they are not at a disadvantage. The V band is not a back-door entry for unlicensed players to offer full mobile access services. BIF is a principled think tank and would never support an unauthorised backdoor entry into any service.

Consumer demand for lower-cost, high-on-innovation smart devices and SRDs is already on the rise and is expected to grow explosively in many areas of modern life and practical applications of convenience. This cannot be realised without delicensed regular V-band.

Adopt delicensed V-band? “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
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Author is Hon. Fellow of IET (London) and President of Broadband India Forum. Views are personal. Research inputs by Chandana Bala.

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