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Mobile operators in some of the world's most advanced telecoms markets appear to be bypassing long-established international conventions for spectrum allocation in their drive to get commercial 5G networks off the ground by the end of the decade. Their actions risk sidelining the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) in its role as global arbitrator of spectrum use for mobile broadband communications.

Support for the use of yet-to-be-approved spectrum bands is growing

The WRC is the arm of the International Telecommunication Union responsible for the global allocation of spectrum for mobile broadband communications and a range of other services, including global satellite systems, flight tracking, and emergency communications for disaster relief. The body meets every 3–4 years to revise and update the Radio Regulations, an international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum, based on input from regional post and telecommunication administrations and stakeholders from the public and private sectors.

The WRC plays an important role in making sure operators use similar bands for radio communications. This helps to harmonize the market and keep vendors from having to develop hundreds of SKUs to meet hundreds of different spectrum requirements.

Yet, Japan's NTT DoCoMo, South Korea's SK Telecom, and four major US mobile operators – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon – are all pressing ahead with trials of 5G technology using spectrum, including the 28GHz band, even though those frequencies have not yet received WRC approval.

The 28GHz band and other newly identified frequencies above 6GHz are expected to be earmarked for 5G by the WRC, but were overlooked at its 2015 meeting and won't be up for discussion again until the WRC's next meeting scheduled for 2019, just one year before the first commercial, fully standards-based 5G networks are due to launch.

It appears likely that operators will receive backing for their plans from national regulators frustrated with the protracted and sometimes politically charged processes of the WRC, and who are prepared to license or otherwise allocate spectrum whether or not WRC approval is granted. Equipment vendors have also indicated that they are ready to supply equipment supporting the new bands, regardless of whether the bands have received WRC approval.

Speaking at this week's 5G World event in London, Takehiro Nakamura, vice president and managing director of NTT DoCoMo's 5G Lab, said that device vendors in particular are pushing for new spectrum bands both below and above 6GHz to be identified this year in order for the 2020 target date to be achieved. The process of incorporating new bands into mobile devices is notoriously complex, as has been shown by the challenges of supporting the multiplicity of bands used for 4G. Device manufacturers will need a head start if they are to support the new 5G technology at launch.

There was also support from 3GPP, the main standards body tasked with defining 5G technologies. Speaking in the same keynote session at 5G World, Adrian Scrase, CTO of ETSI, said that historically the industry had put its faith in the WRC to identify new spectrum bands, but he suggested that an alternative approach might need to be found if the current approval process does not deliver in time.

Ovum believes that industry pressure on the WRC will only build as operators, keen to meet their aggressive 5G deadlines and determined to retain their technological lead, drive towards their goal. The four-year interval between WRC meetings is clearly unable to keep pace with the accelerating process of technological change and advances in mobile communication networks. Whether this will lead the WRC to consider taking interim steps to address the situation remains to be seen. Adherence to the rules governing spectrum regulation and use has always been a key principle observed by the telecommunications industry, but commercial pressures are in danger of undermining current processes if the situation isn't quickly resolved. This could lead to market fragmentation, which will ultimately hamper the global uptake of 5G.


Further reading

"5G will hit 24 million broadband subscriptions worldwide in 2021," TE0001-001036 (June 2016)


Julian Bright, Senior Analyst, Intelligent Networks

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