Proximus halting some 5G deployment to calm health fears

Belgian telco Proximus will halt 5G network deployment in the city of Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve to hold a Town Hall to address all health concerns of citizens.

Although the rumours connecting 5G to COVID-19 or the growth of an extra ear might seem preposterous to those in the industry, some members of the general public are harbouring health concerns, and an even smaller proportion are turning to criminal activities to damage infrastructure.

There is no circumstance where vandalism and arson on telecoms equipment is acceptable, neither is physical and verbal abuse to staff, but the industry has left a void in education. This may go some way to explaining why some people believe the absurd and baseless rumours which are being spread by conspiracy theorists and chatroom trolls; the telco industry has never fully explained radio technology, just assumed everyone would be OK with a network upgrade.

This situation is further compounded when it is not immediately obvious why the upgrades are being performed. As it stands, 4G works but the general public has not seen the same data as industry insiders demonstrating the rapid growth in data usage or the limitations of today’s networks. Without these explanations, the soil has been fertilised to allow these ridiculous claims to bed in and grow.

In Belgium, it appears Proximus is addressing the concerns prior to the 5G engine revving through the gears.

“The City of Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve has just obtained from Proximus the answer to the question it has been asking since March 31: the deployment of 5G via the antennas present on its territory has been stopped,” a statement on the City’s website said. “The operator has also promised to participate in a public information session, during which he will explain his project to citizens.”

As it stands, the public consultation for the upcoming auction will not be open for citizens to respond to, which has irked city officials somewhat as it is believed the debate should be societal and not just a technical one. That said, hopefully the Town Hall and supplementary documentation will be sufficient to provide enough information to dispel the ludicrous myths, disarm the pseudoscience with facts and remove any faith which has wrongly been placed in the conspiracy theorists.

The spectrum auction itself has been postponed during the COVID-19 outbreak, though we suspect much of the work to deploy a 5G network would also have been delayed. Five applications are in the running for spectrum (Proximus, Telnet, Orange Belgium, Cegeka and Entropia Investments) which will be split into five 40 MHz blocks between the 3.6-3.8 GHz band. The telcos will have to pay €800,000 upfront for a 15-year licence, as well as €420,000 per annum.

The pause on 5G rollout, which was likely slowing due to COVID-19 in any case, should give an opportunity to address the concerns of the general public to ensure the spate of vandalism, which has crept from the UK to the Netherlands, does not spread any further.

Over the last few weeks, there have been a number of arson attacks directed towards 5G infrastructure in both the UK and the Netherlands thanks to a small number of criminals believing the fantasies of false prophets. Celebrities have been effectively endorsing messages from the likes of former-BBC Presenter and current-nutjob David Icke, with a small number of gullible fools drinking the Kool-Aid.

Not only are these actions illegal and monstrously misinformed, the consequences extend to inhibiting emergency services from doing vital work in response to the coronavirus.

However, the Town Hall approach from Proximus here might create a blueprint to follow. The General Public needs to be educated and brought on the 5G journey with everyone else. It cannot just be assumed citizens will just blindly follow the telcos down the virtual trail to the digital economy, hands have to be held and lessons taught.

The only way to disarm the dangerous and idiotic conspiracy theorists is to provide the general public with the correct information to ensure that sensible individuals can make correct decisions. The tinfoil hat army will always be lurking in the delusional corners, but as long as the vast majority realise that the likes of Eamonn Holmes is talking as much sense as a drunken Charlie Sheen, the world will be a harmonious place.

India ignores industry on spectrum pricing complaints

The Indian Government has said it will not drop prices for spectrum licences in the next auction, despite persistent complaints from industry.

At conferences across the year, the Indian Government has been making suggestions it would reform the spectrum auction process, perhaps to appease the complaints from telcos, though this statement is quite the contrary. According to the Economic Times of India, after reviewing recommendations from the Telecoms Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the Government has decided to maintain the current pricing structure.

And while telcos will always attempt to reduce investments made on spectrum, as well as bemoan the amount spent, you have to take these protests with a pinch of salt. There might be some credibility to the Indian complaints however.

In other markets, Germany for example, the telcos have been in uproar regarding the structure and pricing of spectrum auctions. The same complaints are being aired in India, though there is a slight difference in the outcome; spectrum is snapped up in Germany, suggesting the telcos can afford it, they just don’t like the price, but spectrum is remaining unsold in India.

According to Broadband India Forum (BIF), the high reserve prices placed on spectrum assets is a significant barrier. Since 2010, a period which includes six spectrum auctions, only 60% of the licences have been purchased. If such a valuable, and sparse, asset is remaining unsold, there is clearly something wrong with the status quo. Spectrum is arguably the lifeblood of a telco after all.

When compared to other nations, adjusted to take into account ARPU, BIF believes spectrum is 4X the price in India. As a result of these assets remaining unclaimed, $756 billion in economic losses have added-up over the years. This is very likely to be exaggeration, though there will of course be a dent to the progress and adoption of the digital economy when telcos are not in full-flight with all the relevant support from authorities.

The next spectrum auction is likely to take place in early 2020, starting with the 3.3-3.6 GHz spectrum band, some of the most prized assets due to the palatable compromise between speed and coverage. 275 MHz will be made available in the first instance, which the Government insists is enough to launch services, though industry and BIF disagree.

This could be an interesting auction, as the Government has ambitions to launch 5G services in India in 2020. Ericsson’s most recent mobile study suggests 5G connections will not be available in the country by 2022 to counter this point and considering the telcos are not happy with the current status quo, it does not look incredibly likely.

Once again, the Indian Government and regulator does not seem to want to work collaboratively with industry, taking a somewhat authoritarian approach as opposed to listening to how it could aid progress of the digital economy.

Sweden decides to delay 5G spectrum allocation

The Swedish Post and Telecom Authority (PTS) has announced it will delay the allocation of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz and 2.3 GHz bands due to a security review.

The 3.5 GHz and 2.3 GHz bands spectrum bands are two of the most attractive when it comes to rolling out 5G services, blending together a palatable compromise between increased download speeds and coverage. These spectrum auctions have proven to be some of the most interesting, though the delay will be an irritant for the ambitious telcos.

Pointing towards new security implications introduced in the country’s electronic communications law (PLAY), which will be implemented on January 1, 2020, the regulator feels it needs more time to continue discussions with police and security agencies. Details are thin on the ground for the moment, though this is hardly going to be viewed as a plus at the telcos who have been demanding more spectrum be released.

In June, progress looked to be gathering momentum as PTS announced a public consultation to release spectrum in the 3.5 GHz and 2.3 GHz bands. 15 national blocks of at least 20 MHz in the 3.4 GHz-3.7 GHz band were set to be auctioned, as well as up to eight 10 MHz nationwide licences at 2.3GHz. The auction was likely to take place in the early part of 2020, though these plans have now been side-lined.

Sweden is not in a unique position when it comes to a need to free-up valuable spectrum assets, though that will come as little comfort to those who were gearing-up for an auction in the coming months. Reviews like this create a sense of uncertainty in the minds of the telcos, and uncertainty is the enemy of investment. You only have to look at the UK for evidence of this.

Thanks to the creation of the Supply Chain Review, the position of Huawei is still an on-going unknown. This has led the telcos to falter with deployment plans. Unless Sweden want to encounter the same problems, such a security review will have to be completed incredibly quickly. Obligations and conditions will have to be considered and relevant, as the last thing anyone will want is protest from industry, further delaying the critical element of certainty.

Many will hope such a security review does not enter the country into the same purgatory which the UK finds itself in with the Supply Chain Review, but it would surprise few if it did.

BT/EE and Three fingered by Ofcom for spectrum shenanigans

Ofcom CEO Sharon White has decided to put pen to paper and rant her way through the weekend, pointing the finger at BT/EE and Three for the UK’s potential failures in the digital economy.

It’s an interesting little rant, which appeared in the form of a by-lined piece in the FT over the weekend, and seems to be laying the foundations for blame should the UK fall behind in the digital arms race. In short, White has her defences up and is preparing for an onslaught should judicial reviews ahead of the 5G spectrum auction drag on for longer than what would be considered ideal.

“We appreciate companies must look after their own positions,” said White. “But commercial interests must not derail a golden opportunity for the UK to achieve leadership in 5G and be among the world’s best connected nations, which will benefit consumers and businesses and give our economy a competitive edge.”

It’s all very British. Nothing has gone wrong yet, but the adults are already preparing for failure. And the troublemakers are BT/EE and Three according to White.

Thanks to legal challenges to spectrum rules, BT/EE and Three have put the digital ambitions of the UK on shaky grounds. Three is arguing Ofcom hasn’t put strict enough controls on what BT/EE can bid for in the upcoming 5G auction, whereas BT/EE is challenging on the grounds the controls are too strict. Currently, the limit on airwave ownership stands at 37%.

Both have argued the challenges are for the benefit of the consumer, but the thinly vailed rationale isn’t too much of a distraction. It is entirely self-serving, as is pretty much every other statement and action in an industry which is proving to be the anti-Christ of customer centricity.

“The courts have agreed to fast-track litigation, but the benefits for mobile users will inevitably be delayed,” said White. “We planned to complete the auction this year. Now we will be in court in December. We believe that auctioning some 5G airwaves early would allow companies to start the vital groundwork to make 5G a reality as soon as possible.”

All the relevant parties will be eye balling the courts from December 5 as the review kicks off. It’ll be a tense three days for the Ofcom offices, as success will bring a sigh of relief and business as usual, but failure will not. Should Ofcom end on the losing side, the result will be months of delays as rules are redrawn. It’ll be back to square one, and of course there is no guarantee there will not be more legal challenges should there be any changes.

The UK is currently sitting in legal limbo for the moment, and considering the fact Ofcom’s CEO felt it necessary to pen a slightly defensive rant it doesn’t give the greatest impression of confidence. If you were to look at this article in isolation, you would probably assume Ofcom has resigned to loss already.

After reading the piece from White, we got in touch with Three, and the team is firmly standing behind the legal challenge. Ofcom seems to be validating its position with this rant, but Three is still wondering how the watchdog got to the number 37 for the cap. This rationale has not been fully explained to date, and considering Three wanted it much lower (a 30% cap on spectrum ownership), the challenge is far from surprising.

Another interesting area which has had Three up in arms is a review of the cap. According to Three, the cap will be reviewed ahead of the release of the 700 MHz spectrum (which will be in 2020 should everything run smoothly), but BT will not be below the cap by this point. Three argues whether there is any meaning to a cap which will not be realized before a review. It does have a point here.

Three might be crafting a bit of a reputation for being a bit moany, and the challenge itself does appear to be self-serving (not necessarily a bad thing), but at least this time there is logic. Three wants the decision making process reviewed independently so it can sleep soundly.