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DoT may consider assigning 700 MHz spectrum to Railways if operators don’t bid

The government could consider assigning parts of the 700 MHz spectrum to the railways in case it goes remains unsold in the upcoming 5G auctions.

In the consultation paper floated by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on the spectrum requirements for State railway organisations such as the National Capital Region Transport Corporation (NCRTC) for train control systems, the regulator noted that leaving this valuable spectrum idle would be of economic loss to the nation.

Furthermore, given that the Indian Railways have already been assigned 5MHz of spectrum in this band already, the development of their LTE technology-based network will be much faster if other State rail networks ask for spectrum 700 MHz as well.

TRAI said, “If other rail networks are also assigned spectrum in 700 MHz bands, the development of the ecosystem for Railway Radiocommunication Systems between Train and Trackside (RSTT) in this band could be faster, resulting in economies of scale and thus benefit the people of the country at large.”

Crucial band for 5G coverage
While 700 MHz is the key frequency band for indoor 5G coverage, the general consensus amongst the experts is that it will see no bidders in the upcoming auctions.

A report by IIFL said the following on this matter, “(700 MHz) is critical for standalone 5G services through network slicing. However, with telcos likely to use 4G core, to offer 5G services (non-standalone configuration) in the near term, we see no urgency from telcos in acquiring 700 MHz at such high prices.”

Standalone deployment of 5G is the gold standard for 5G network deployment, with telecom operators globally veering towards this type of deployment in mature networks. According to IIFL, each operator needs 15MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band.

While India had 45 MHz of spectrum in this band initially, 10 MHz of this has already been earmarked by the government, and 5 MHz has already been assigned to the Indian railways. Therefore, as of now, only 30 MHz of the spectrum has been left for commercial use.

NCRTC has also asked for another 5MHz of spectrum in order to further develop their regional transportation corridors.

TRAI predicts that other regional rail companies are likely to follow suit. If NCRTC gets its requested amount of spectrum it will leave only 25 MHz of spectrum for operators, which will not be enough for the three telcos — Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, and Vodafone Idea to provide mature 5G services.

Chipping away 700 MHz
Furthermore, the government is not just deliberating on NCRTC’s request, but also the potential requests of other regional railway ventures, which will ultimately chip away at the crucial 5G band.

If telecom operators do not bid on this spectrum in these auctions, and it remains unassigned, it could further strengthen the government’s considerations to not let the spectrum go to waste and assign it to the railways for a myriad of essential services from public safety to Wi-Fi.

However, acknowledging the crucial need for this spectrum band to provide 5G services, TRAI has also floated a consultation paper to consider other spectrum bands both in 600 MHz and 900 MHz for railways.

While bidding for the 5G spectrum operators must take into consideration whether abandoning 700 MHz in this auction will prompt the government to lower its price to put it to some other use. Business Journal

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