5G, the next generation network which has catapulted us into Industry 4.0, boasts a considerable improvement in mobile broadband performance, ultra-low latency and high throughput.
It will enable autonomous vehicles, industry automation, augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), massive machine type communication and smart cities, buildings and homes.
The prospect of 5G goes beyond catering to the evolving nature of consumer mobile demands. It now involves delivering capabilities which will make an immense contribution to the digital transformation of industry vertical sectors.
5G brings with it a new standard of flexibility and adaptability in the way that it will make customizable services possible and will simultaneously enable enterprises to cater to a huge variety of consumers. It will enable features like network slicing which will essentially allow for the industrial sector to use exactly what they need from the network.
In order for 5G to operate, the right spectrum needs to be allocated. Ensuring appropriate allocation is up to the International Telecommunications Union and telecom regulators.
For 5G to be deployed, a significant amount of harmonized spectrum needs to be allocated so that defragmenting and clearing prime bands can be inherently prioritized. For this to work, regulatory bodies must work towards making sure that 80-100 MHz of contagious spectrum in 5G’s prime mid-bands (3.5 GHz) is made available for each operator of that respective country. Additionally, they need to ensure that approximately 1 GHz per operator is made available in millimeter wave bands (26-28 GHz).
5G deployment would mean that three key frequency ranges- Sub-1 GHz, 1-6 GHz and more than 6 GHz- are needed to enable widespread coverage to support a wide range of use cases.
Sub-1 GHz radio frequencies enable low power wireless data communications which means that they are able to control a variety of applications which could range from baby monitors to smart home technologies. This band works to support widespread coverage across all types of areas whether they are urban, suburban or rural and works to support internet of things (IoT). Indeed, this frequency band is designed to be able to support an immense number of applications which need short range and low data rates to be able to function.
Currently, 90 operators are operating LTE networks worldwide, many of which hold licenses within the 1-6 GHz range. This range is essential to the deployment of 5G-enabled services and it has been widely speculated that its use will continue to grow, even for LTE.
This frequency range will bring with it both capacity and coverage benefits. This often includes spectrum between 3.3 and 3.8 GHz which will essentially lay the foundations of many initial 5G services. However, when considering the long term, more spectrum will be required to maintain the quality of the 5G network and the quality of services that it will enable. This is due to the continuously growing and evolving demand of consumer needs therefore, frequencies between 3 and 24 GHz will be appropriate.
Above 6 GHz
In terms of the range that exceeds 6GHz, this will be used to support the functionality of ultra-high broadband speeds. As of yet, the most international support is based on the 26 GHz and 28 GHz frequency range.
In fact, research has shown that around 66% of all announced 5G devices support sub-6 GHz and only about 33% support mmWave spectrum. Additionally, a little over 27% of these devices have been found to support mmWave and sub-6 GHz spectrum bands.
At present, there are around 59 devices which have been announced to possess the need to support some spectrum bands above 6 GHz. However, it is important to note that most of the devices which will use this frequency are still in their pre-commercial stage, while only 11 of them are commercially available.
Spectrum is discussed and allocated at the ITU’s World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC). Indeed, the WRC has always played a crucial role in connecting over five billion people across the globe. The latest event, which was held in 2019, essentially set the standard for all the new and exciting opportunities that have been made possible with 5G. While 5G is undeniably a life-changing technology, it can only really do what it does best if the right spectrum is made available.
The last WRC-19 was held in Egypt where delegates discussed making high frequency mmWave spectrum available in 26 GHz, 40 GHz and even 66 GHz for ultra-high speed connectivity and ultra-low latency services for consumers, enterprises and government entities.
However, it is of the essence to consider that making 5G a reality will require governments and regulators to come together to devise a plan in order to support timely access to the adequate amount of spectrum whilst simultaneously ensuring that it is affordable so as to not discourage investment in the technology and under the right circumstances.
5G spectrum allocation per GCC Arab State
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is expected to thrive, with predictions suggesting that it will experience the fastest subscriber growth rate of any region between 2017 and 2025.
As of yet, within the wider MENA region, there are around 381 million unique mobile subscribers; this accounts for about 64% of the population. However, the market is quite diverse in terms of maturity, with some North African members which possess a mobile penetration rate as low as 30%.
Within the region lies the GCC, home to the region’s most fruitful economies and some of the world’s fastest 5G network adopters. GCC Arab states account for around 77% (of the population) in terms of mobile subscriber penetration.
The GCC countries include: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.
The GCC is characterized by proactive and consistent government support to deploy the latest and greatest. Being part of a regulatory environment which encourages technology adoption to such an extent means that 5G will thrive.
The GSMA released a report last year titled ‘5G in MENA: GCC Operators Set for Global Leadership’ which highlights just how advanced the pioneering mobile operators of the GCC Arab States really are. The report forecasted that the GCC countries would begin to launch 5G networks commercially by 2019, essentially opening up new revenue streams for enterprises and creating a whole other level of services and connectivity across the region. Additionally, it was also forecasted that by the year 2025, 5G will account for over 16% of the total connections within the markets of these countries alone.
In fact, in some markets, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, 5G commercial services were deployed a great deal earlier than initially announced.
Last year, the Arab Spectrum Management Group (ASMG) announced that it plans to allocate 3.3 to 3.8 GHz spectrum range for use by mobile broadband. The ASMG represents 22 Arabic countries and works towards managing issues related to spectrum allocation and management as well as the ITU’s WRCs between Arab nations. They eventually reserved 3.3 to 3.4 GHz for partial use in some countries and have also retained this band for other services which require priority. The 3.4 to 3.8 GHz band has also been made available across the entire Arab region. This will ensure exponential growth for the 5G-powered equipment ecosystem as device manufacturers will experience an increase in the economies of scale and will essentially set the stage for new and affordable devices to be introduced to the market at a much faster rate.
Eng. Tariq Al Awadhi, ASMG chair and director of the UAE’s Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA), stated, “The 3 GHz spectrum range is one of the first resources to be used by 5G all over the world. This will be an important backbone for next-generation services in Arab countries, allowing them to continue to play a leading role in developing 5G.”
Indeed, with the availability of mobile networks with better capacity combined with the opportunity for better coverage, the 5G ecosystem is expected to thrive in the GCC.
Head of MENA at GSMA, Jawad Abbassi, stated, “The availability of mobile networks with better coverage and capacity is predicated on governments laying the foundation for investment in infrastructure and services. The ASMG is showing strong leadership in backing the region’s 5G future.”
The GCC countries were all allocated similar spectrum bands; countries with greater tech adoption and who are edging closer to their 5G rollout were of course allocated a wider range.
“Taking the right steps to support the timely release of spectrum will ensure that Arab nations will be amongst the first in the world to offer 5G services,” said GSMA’s Head of Spectrum, Brett Tarnutzer.
To which he added, “Enhanced mobile broadband, industrial automation and immersive digital entertainment are just some of the exciting new benefits that consumers and businesses can look forward to.”
United Arab Emirates
The UAE’s telecommunications industry, which is regulated by the TRA completed its auction status in November 2018 when it was allocated 3.3 to 3.8 GHz of spectrum, with both of the country’s operators receiving equal amounts. However, it has been speculated that the TRA has been looking into allocating certain bands for 5G use. They may be looking into obtaining the 1427MHz – 1518MHz as well as 24.25GHz - 27.5GHz.
Oman, home to three telecom operators: Omantel, Ooredoo and Vodafone, was awarded licenses back in December 2018. 3.4 GHz – 3.7 GHz was allocated to Oman’s regulatory body in order to divide and allocate it to the operators. Omantel obtained 100 MHz in the 3400MHz – 3500MHz band, Ooredoo obtained 3500MHz- 3600MHz frequencies, while Vodafone received 3600MHz to 3700MHz. 5G services are expected to be deployed in Oman by 2020.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the region’s largest economy, has three operators: Zain, Saudi Telecommunications Company (stc) and Mobily. Following an auction in March 2019, the Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC) has allocated equal amounts of spectrum to the three operators which is between 3.4GHz – 3.8GHz. The operators are already a step ahead of most telcos in the region as they have already started to rollout 5G last year.
As for the island state, Bahrain, the TRA allocated spectrum between 800 MHz and 2600 MHz (TDD). As of yet, we are unsure about the exact ranges which were allocated to the three operators: Batelco, Zain and VIVA. However, the 20MHz in the 2600MHz band which remained, were auctioned to the three providers with two 10MHz blocks of spectrum with the reserve prices of BHD 166,000.
"Promoting competition and encouraging investment in the telecommunications sector is ongoing and keeps pace with all economic developments and the latest global technologies in order to bring more benefits to users," said the TRA’s acting director general Nasser bin Mohamed Al Khalifa.
He added: “With regards to mobile services, TRA has provided the required spectrum and granted sufficient frequency licenses to provide 5G services, making Bahrain one of the first countries in the region to establish 5G networks. Through these initiatives, TRA seeks to achieve the government strategic goal to keep Bahrain at the forefront regionally and internationally and make it a regional hub for trade and ICT.”
The Communication and Information technology Regulatory Authority (CITRA) issued 3.5 GHz licenses in May 2019. The regulator has stated that it will enable the use of 5G networks within the country through the use of additional spectrum in the existing LTE frequency range, as well as mmWave spectrum (eventually) above 24 GHz.
There have been no concrete plans for an auction to take place and the allocated spectrum per operator is yet to be disclosed.
Qatar’s telecommunications regulator, Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA), has considered auctioning the 700 – 3500 MHz band as well as the 26 GHz band (26.5-27.5 GHz) to enable 5G services.
The regulator specified that it plans to utilize the 700 MHz frequency band to cater to the demand of service providers and applications of the public protection and disaster relief (OODR).
The country’s Ministry of Communications granted licenses to Ooredoo and Vodafone to allow for 5G network deployment in January last year. Each operator was granted 100 MHz of spectrum within the 3500-3800 MHz range. With the impending 2022 FIFA World Cup, the operators have been relentless in their efforts to deploy 5G networks in highly populated areas and major highways by the end of the year.
Indeed, 5G trials and the launch of commercial services have already shown the extent of the potential and opportunities posed by the next generation network. In order to turn this into a reality and to maximize the potential of 5G, large amounts of harmonized spectrum are needed, especially across the Sub-1 GHz, 1-6 GHz and 6 GHz + ranges.
It seems that 3.5 GHz has been gaining a lot of traction but it is also key to remember that operators must have access to spectrum below 1GHz too. Undoubtedly, any country that plans to deploy 5G must be able to access spectrum within these ranges which is why regulators need to make it immediately available.
5G goes far beyond catering to the evolving consumer mobile demands, especially in the way that it is capable of enabling meticulously designed capabilities which will transform several vertical sectors. Hence, key spectrum bands should be set aside for verticals that require priority because if it is not allocated accordingly, regulators may run the risk of wasting spectrum.