Three gives forgotten child 4G some much-needed attention

With 5G networks being switched on left, right and centre, let’s not forget 4G experience is still going to be the major concern of the vast majority of users for a long-time to come.

In its pursuit of a more established ranking in the UK mobile league, Three has announced a number of initiatives to improve the 4G experience for its customers. 5G might dominate the headlines, but 4G is going to dictate the fortunes of the telcos for some time.

“5G is a game changer for Three’s current and future customers. It will bring faster speeds, a better experience and masses of capacity which will benefit our 4G customers as well,” said Three CEO Dave Dyson. “While we are investing heavily in 5G, 4G is still very important for our mobile and home broadband services.

“These upgrades will ensure that our data hungry customers are getting the best possible 4G experience as 5G rolls out.”

The two initiatives announced here will continue to build the 4G experience for customers. Firstly, the introduction of new spectrum and site upgrades. Secondly, the re-farming of 3G spectrum to further bolster the armoury in the fight for 4G supremacy.

6,000 mobile sites, which account for 80% of the traffic which flows across the Three network, will get an upgrade. These upgrades, which will run alongside the 5G deployment initiatives, will include new antennas and new spectrum. Three is claiming the introduction of 1400 MHz spectrum should increase download speeds by 150%, assuming of course you have the right device.

Although the range of compatible devices is quite large, a simpler way to describe it would be any device which has been released in the last 12-18 months. For those who have older devices, Three suggests the download speed gain could be as much as 50%. It’s not necessarily a mind-blowing number in comparison to others which are floating around the mobile domain, but it would certainly make a notable impact on experience.

The second initiative involves the 3G spectrum. All of the telcos are undertaking the process of re-farming 3G spectrum for higher purposes, but Three does seem to be leading the way. As part of the announcement today, Three is suggesting 12,500 sites will see speed improvements of up to 40% as 3G spectrum is handed over to 4G.

Looking at the bigger picture, none of the telcos can forget about 4G. 5G might be much more attractive to the consumer (the bigger, meaner, faster mentality is very strong), but for years to come the 4G networks will continue to define user experience.

Firstly, you have to look at the adoption of 5G tariffs. This will of course depend on the user purchasing an expensive 5G-compatible device, but then also signing-up to a 5G contract. It will take time for this migration to occur, and we suspect it will be years before economies of scale bring down the price of the devices, opening the euphoria up to the mass market.

Secondly, you have to consider how long it will be until the telcos are demonstrate ubiquity for their 5G networks. Not only does this mean upgrading all mobile sites across the country, but it also means network densification initiatives to compensate for shorter spectrum range and mobile radio propagation. The work to ensure the 5G world is everywhere, all the time, is only just beginning.

Both of these factors mean 4G will be just as, or more important than 5G over the next few years. 5G might generate headlines, but 4G will continue to drive revenues.

GSMA lobbies for more and cheaper spectrum

Ahead of WRC-19 mobile industry lobbying group the GSMA has lobbied on behalf of the mobile industry.

The main concern of the GSMA, and thus we can assume the global mobile industry, is access to plenty of licensed spectrum at reasonable prices. The ITU’s 19th World Radiocommunication Conference will take place in November, but lobbying groups are getting organised well ahead of time. While the cost and availability of spectrum is a perennial issue, the advent of 5G makes it arguably more important than ever.

The GSMA has opened two lobbying fronts in this case. The first involved an open letter loftily headed ‘Delivering the greatest value for society at WRC-19’. As indicated the letter conflates the progress of 5G with that of civilization itself and warns that any failure to heed the GSMA’s wishes could have dire societal consequences.

The second initiative took the form of a report that concludes ‘High spectrum prices leave millions unconnected’. Once more the fortunes of its members are intimately associated with the progress of mankind, as the GSMA opens its presentation of the award by saying ‘the negative impacts of high spectrum prices on consumers can no longer be disputed.’

“Spectrum auctions can’t be viewed as cash cows anymore,” said Brett Tarnutzer, Head of Spectrum at the GSMA. “Any government that prices spectrum to maximise revenue now does so with full knowledge that its actions will have negative repercussions on citizens and the development of mobile services. We now have clear evidence that shows by restricting the financial ability of operators to invest in mobile networks millions of consumers are suffering.”

The GSMA is in danger of laying it on too thick with these two attempts to pressure the powers that be into making it cheaper for its members to get hold of all-important spectrum. The negative impacts of doing otherwise can and will be disputed, while appeals to philanthropy are a bit rich coming from such an affluent and profitable industry.

Having said that there are many good arguments in favour of freeing up spectrum and not allowing them to be a public sector cash grab every few years. There’s no way it costs governments and regulators the amount of money they extort from operators in spectrum licenses to manage them and in its unsubtle way the GSMA seems to be saying that if you want to service your people, try being a bit more helpful about keeping them connected.

GSMA pushes the case for 26 GHz ahead of WRC-19

In an open-letter to representatives of 170 governments ahead of the ITU’s World Radiocommunication Conference in November, the GSMA has pressed the case for 5G in the mmWave spectrum bands.

At the conference, taking place in Egypt, Government Ministers and executives of regulatory authorities will decide the fate of 5G in the 26, 40 and 66 GHz spectrum bands. These spectrum bands have been hotly-discussed for ultra-high capacity and ultra-high-speed services, though there have been discerning voices.

The criticism which has seemed to gain traction from some US politicians is from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which suggest 5G in the high frequency bands will impact the accuracy of weather forecasts.

“Identifying mmWave spectrum for mobile requires careful consideration. That is why the industry has been so actively involved at the ITU over the past four years of technical study of these frequencies,” the letter states.

“The methodical analysis undertaken by governments and industry through the ITU process has demonstrated that mobile can safely operate in these bands without causing harm to other spectrum-using services.”

The GSMA has also warned government agencies on taking the impact on weather forecasts too seriously, stating the officials should base their decisions on ‘sound science’. It seems to be a cheap shot, but as the conference draws closer, we suspect more vicious barbs will be thrown towards the spectrum rivals.

An interesting undertone to this is the impact to global harmonisation of spectrum. This has always been a concern of the GSMA, as it will impact the inner workings of the 5G ecosystem. A regionalised approach to the delivery of 5G is not a perfect outcome, especially when this generation of mobile technology was supposed to be a demonstration of collaboration.

That said, evidence of fragmentation is already exists.

In the US, the general approach to 5G delivery has been through the mmWave spectrum bands, though Europe is seemingly favouring the mid-band spectrum. The European approach does seem to be more effective for the moment, mid-band spectrum marries a palatable compromise between increased speeds and a tolerable range of coverage. US 5G enthusiasts might be able to get eye-watering speeds, though they will have to be stood very close to a base station.

China Telecom and China Unicom jointly build and share 5G RAN

China Telecom and China Unicom, two of China’s three leading telecom operators, and two of its four 5G licensees, will jointly cover parts of the country with one shared 5G radio access network.

The two companies, both listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, signed the “Framework Agreement on Co-building and Co-sharing 5G Networks” on Monday. According to the Agreement, the two operators, by sharing the radio spectrums to their names, will “build together” and “share together” one 5G radio access network in 15 major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, etc. The 5G core networks will be built separately.

The Agreement also laid out the plan on how to divide the work between the two in the cities they will share the network. Territories each will cover is divided roughly based on the number of 4G base stations. For example, in Beijing, China Telecom will build 40% of the 5G base stations, while in Shanghai it will build 60%. Each company will be responsible for investing in, maintaining, and operating the base stations it builds. The Agreement also commits “non-aggression” between the partners, for example, collaboration with third parties by one partner should not harm the interest of the other partner. Details of revenue settlement in the shared networks will be worked out later.

On top of that, the two companies will build their own separate 5G networks in other parts of the country. China Telecom’s own network will extend to 19 provinces, while China Unicom’s will cover 10.

The two operators, together with China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile operator by subscriber numbers, and China Broadcasting Network Corporation Ltd, were all awarded 5G licences in June, well ahead of what the industry had expected.

US starts edging towards mid-band spectrum release

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released a statement all the telcos have been waiting for; there is finally going to be a spectrum auction for the 3.5 GHz band.

The telcos will have to wait more than year to access the valuable spectrum assets, though the FCC team will hope to discuss rules and procedures to carve up the much-desired mid-band spectrum next June. The auction will likely be later in the year or early 2021, though it is evidence of the slow-moving wheels of progress.

“Making more spectrum available for the commercial marketplace is a central plank of the Commission’s 5G FAST strategy,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a blog post.

“We’ve already completed two spectrum auctions this year and will begin a third on December 10. And at our September meeting, we will vote to seek comment on draft procedures for an auction of 70 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band to begin on June 25, 2020.”

For the telcos, this will be welcome news. The US has largely focused on high-frequency spectrum bands, the mmWave assets, though commentators have suggested this has not been able to deliver the desired experience for 5G connectivity. High speeds might be achievable, however there is a serious compromise to be made on the coverage maps.

This is where the European telcos are reaping the benefits. Most of the 5G launches have been based on mid-band spectrum, striking what is a much more palatable balance between increased speeds and reasonable coverage. This coverage can later be supplemented by higher frequency connectivity to add additional speeds in the future, though the 100+ Mbps speeds should be more than enough for the moment.

“The 3.5 GHz band is prime spectrum for 5G services,” Pai said. “But when I became Chairman, we didn’t have the right rules in place to encourage the deployment of 5G in the band.

“That’s why I asked Commissioner O’Rielly to lead our effort to adopt targeted updates to the licensing and technical rules for the 3.5 GHz band with the aim of promoting more investment and innovation.”

Alongside frequencies in the 3.5 GHz band, the FCC is also considering new procedures to free-up more spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz frequency range. Currently being used for video, this band will offer much more opportunity than the 70 MHz being released for auction in the 3.5 GHz band.

Although the mmWave frequencies will be critical in delivering the promised speeds for the 5G era, it does look like the US has gone the long-way around delivering the foundations for 5G. European telcos and regulators have generally prioritised mid-band spectrum, allowing for a 5G-ish experience on current network densities, with the long-term ambition of supplementing with higher frequencies.

This approach seems to be a much more reasonable one. It creates a foundation layer, with coverage maps consumers have come to expect, though speeds can grow as adoption increases and applications emerge which require the ridiculous speeds which are being promised.

With these auctions promised by the FCC, the US is heading in the right direction, albeit, quite slowly.

EE grasses on Three UK for its 5G advertising

Three UK has run an ad campaign claiming its 5G network is the only ‘real’ one. Unsurprisingly other 5G providers are unhappy about this and at least one had complained.

The UK Advertising Standards Authority has been forced to take precious resource away from enforcing gender politics dogma to look into Three’s 5G ad campaign. The ASA confirmed to Telecoms.com that it has received six complaints about an ad by Three claiming to provide the only ‘real’ 5G, with one of them coming from BT.

We contacted EE, which provided the following statement: “Three’s claim to be the only real 5G network is entirely false, and deliberately aimed at misleading consumers. Our customers have been using real 5G since we launched the UK’s first 5G network, back in May.”

And, of course, we also spoke to Three UK, which gave us this statement: “Our advert is to inform consumers that we will offer the fastest 5G network, based on Three having three times as much 5G spectrum as any other operator. We are also the only operator to have 100 MHz of contiguous spectrum. ITU considers this the gold standard for 5G, enabling consumers to take full advantage of what 5G has to offer.”

It all seems to come down this 100 MHz contiguous block of spectrum and the value the ITU places on it in the context of 5G. Here’s a slide from a Nokia presentation titled Minimum Technical Performance Requirements for IMT-2020 radio interface(s) [i.e. 5G] that clearly state “The requirement for bandwidth is at least 100 MHz.” However it also states “The bandwidth may be supported by single or multiple RF carriers.”

Nokia IMT 2020 requirements slide

That caveat would appear to undermine Three’s claim that only its contiguous 100 MHz chunk meets the ITU’s minimum requirements. But when we put that to Three their spokesperson countered that, since carrier aggregation isn’t currently supported by 5G chipsets, that stipulation is irrelevant.

Three reckons this complaint is evidence that its competitors are worried about Three’s strong position in 5G spectrum, which is wonderfully ironic when you consider Three has spent a decade moaning about the opposite imbalance in 4G spectrum. Three is presumably OK with the situation now that things have apparently swung in its favour, so much so it was happy to provide us with a few slides.

The first offers a look at the current UK 5G spectrum situation, following the 3.4 GHz spectrum auction last year. Most of Three’s 5G spectrum is in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band, however, and we’re not sure what the ‘future’ bar signifies, but Three does seem to be at a distinct advantage. So much so that its competitors have apparent been moaning to Ofcom too, as quoted in the second Three slide. The last one represents the results of some Three testing, which is designed to show the unique download speed benefits of having 100 MHz of contiguous 5G spectrum.

Thee 5G slide 1

Thee 5G slide 2

Thee 5G slide 3

To be honest we find it hard enough to keep track of who has what spectrum, and why we should care, so we’re certainly not in a position to critique Three’s claims on a technical level. However they do seem to serve as a plausible defense of any claim it might make to have at least the potential to provide greater 5G download speeds than its competitors.

Where we still have some sympathy with the ASA complaint, however, is with the use of the term ‘real’. If Three had simply gone with ‘fastest’, as it did in the above statement, then EE probably wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. But by instead using the term ‘real’ Three seems to inferring rival 5G services are somehow illegitimate.

It will be down to the ASA to sift through the 5G standard, including the above ITU parameters, to determine whether or not only a 5G service that is able to call upon at least 100 MHz of contiguous qualifies. Since the ASA seems more concerned with thought policing these days we have to question whether it has retained the expertise needed to perform its supposedly core function.

Russia jumps on the mmWave train

While most of Europe is resisting the temptation of mmWave frequencies, Russia has joined the US in charging forward with the high-speed, low-coverage airwaves.

Joining forces with the Department of Information Technology of Moscow, the four Russian MNOs will test out the airwaves at a pilot site in the city centre. From the Kremlin to the Garden Ring, the aim seems to be to prove the commercial viability of the 28 GHz spectrum band.

“5G development agreements were signed with the four largest mobile network operators in Russia,” said Head of the Department of Information Technologies Eduard Lysenko. “They suggest implementation of the pilot projects aimed at the development of the new digital technologies and communication services in Moscow, that aim to open-up fundamentally new opportunities.

“A higher data transfer rate along with broader bandwidth will encourage the development of the Internet of things, autonomous transport, remote medicine and many other cutting-edge technologies that will make the lives of citizens even more comfortable.”

While mmWave has become a hot-topic over in the US, for a number of differentiating reasons, Europe is yet to genuinely be drawn into the field. Italy might have conducted an auction for certain licences in the mmWave bands, while Three in the UK has amassed a small collection of assets, generally it is an unproven stomping ground.

The conundrum which many telcos will have to consider is the necessary sacrifice when making use of mmWave assets.

What is undeniable is these airwaves will ensure faster download speeds and lower-latency connectivity. However, coverage is a significant sacrifice when discussing mmWave. The higher the frequency, the shorter the range.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why some telcos have chosen to prioritise mid-range frequencies. It is a nice blend of increased speeds and acceptable range, but also allows the MNOs to make use of existing network infrastructure. This is the very challenge which some analysts have pointed to in the US with the current 5G connectivity; you have to be stood in very precise spots to ensure you can make use of the 5G euphoria.

For 5G connectivity to be a consistent, reliable and realistic experience with mmWave, telcos will have to undertake extensive network densification strategies. This will not only present a significant cost, but in certain countries, gaining planning permission or acquiring new sites for mobile infrastructure becomes a bigger issue.

In some markets, the US for example, regulations have been drawn-up to remove barriers when deploying new network infrastructure. Some other markets, are still waiting for regulatory reform to enable these densification plans are accessible and affordable.

That said, it does not appear the Department of Information Technology of Moscow or the telcos are worried about local governments or planning permission restricting the progress of mmWave in Russia.

GSMA squares up to the space industry

The GSMA has released a statement directed at the lobby groups who are attempting to limit access to the valuable mmWave spectrum frequencies over fears it would interfere with weather forecasting.

While the mmWave spectrum has long been heralded as the holy-grail for telcos when attempting to increase download speeds in the 5G era, the space and satellite industry has been attempting to limit access due to interference with various systems including weather forecasting.

No decisions have been formally made, though the GSMA naturally wants to pressure governments into releasing more spectrum as it performs it duties as the industry’s lobby group.

“We can’t let misinformation and the overly protectionist attitudes of the space industry derail the 5G revolution,” says Brett Tarnutzer, Head of Spectrum, GSMA.

“Over-stringent protection will limit the spectrum needed for 5G and have huge consequences for society. This could put the economic and innovation bonanza accompanying ultra-fast networks on hold for a generation.”

The GSMA is being fairly obvious with its message here. Ignore the fears of the space industry and give the telcos more spectrum. You shouldn’t really expect anything less from the lobby group either; telcos are screaming out for more of the valuable resource.

This spat dates back to objections from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which unveiled a report suggesting the high-frequency spectrum bands would interfere with weather forecasting systems, potentially decreasing the accuracy. Democrat Senators Ron Wyden (Oregon) and Maria Cantwell (Washington) jumped on a report produced by NOAA and NASA, writing to the Oval Office suggesting a halt on spectrum usage in the 24 GHz bands.

Over the next couple of weeks, it would not be a surprise to see this conflict enter into the back and forth as the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 is set to start in 100 days-time. At this event, 3000 delegates will attempt to agree on how radio-wave capacity will be used.

The question these delegates will have to answer is what is more important. The space agency has defended the use of the spectrum for weather forecasting, demonstrating its important to safety and various different industries, but the GSMA has done the same. Most governments are looking towards technology and connectivity as a means to generate economic momentum and the swift implementation of 5G is critical to ensure individual nations do not fall behind the global leaders.

What we suspect will happen is a middle-ground will be found, an attempt to appease all parties involved, though no-one is entirely satisfied. This is generally how such bureaucratic exercises tend to unravel.

Israel takes the ‘Vickrey’ approach to 5G auctions

The Israeli telcos have taken a bit of a battering over the last 12-18 months and it seems the Government has a sympathetic ear with its new approach to auctioning 5G spectrum.

According to Globes, the Government will make use of an auction technique known as the Vickery method to divvy up the precious 5G frequencies. It is an interesting approach, and bundled together with other incentives, should create a much more investment friendly environment for the telcos.

A Vickery auction is a blind auction where the highest bidder wins the prize, but the second-highest value is actually paid. Although this approach is uncommon, for some it is believed to be fairer as it attempts to attract bids closer to the value of the asset but does not punish competition for inflated prices. Whether this proves to be true remains to be seen, though it certainly is an interesting approach.

This auction might turn some heads, but context is key. The Israeli telcos have had somewhat of a difficult period in recent years thanks to the introduction of aggressive new players and an on-going price war which has driven down profits. The Israeli Government has suggested revenues declined in telco by 5.6% in 2018, leading some to the assumption the telcos would struggle to fulfil the financial commitments of 5G networks.

“The financial state of the companies at this time has not escaped us, and the tender also takes this situation into account,” said Minister of Communications David Amsalem. “I congratulate my friends and participants in the tenders committee for their professional work. The dedication and responsibility exercised is what made it possible to lay the cornerstone today for the next era of technology.”

To attract further interest in the 5G bonanza, the Israeli Government will also introduce a number of incentives to lessen the burden of network investment. Payments for spectrum licenses can be delayed until 2022 for example, while there are also rebates being offered to those parties who meet geographical coverage expectations set over a four-year period.

Another interesting aspect of the auction is the shared network element. Some of the assets will only be offered to those telcos who agree to participate in the creation of shared infrastructure, a strategy the Government hopes will increase the efficiency of investments.

Looking at the frequencies available, the Government will attempt to ensure all telcos have a slice of the most desirable bands, 700 MHz for example, while a series of other lots will be available. The assets bought in the 2.6 GHz to 3.8 GHz frequencies will only be useable for 5G, while the other frequencies can be used to bolster 4G.

Only time will tell whether this approach will lead to a net-gain in terms of investment and network rollout, but the Israeli Government should be applauded for taking an alternative approach which is potentially better suited to local market dynamics.

US refarms 2.5 GHz band from education to 5G

The US telecoms regulator has decided to redirect the 2.5 GHz band away from its current educational use to create more 5G spectrum.

The Federal Communications Commission is positioning this as a move to modernize the outdated regulatory framework for the 2.5 GHz band, which is apparently the single largest band of contiguous spectrum below 3 GHz. The band had been set aside for educational TV use and the FCC move removes any restrictions on who can use it and how. It had previously been made available for free but now the government gets to cash in on yet another auction.

At long last, we remove the burdensome restrictions on this band, allowing incumbents greater flexibility in their use of the spectrum, and introduce a spectrum auction that will ensure that this public resource is finally devoted to its highest-valued use,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “These groundbreaking reforms will result in more efficient and effective use of these airwaves and represent the latest step in advancing U.S. leadership in 5G.”

According to Pai, most educational users of this spectrum ended up leasing it out for commercial use anyway, which he seems to consider justification enough alone to take it off them. His full statement makes several oblique references to dissent among the FCC commissioners. The motion was opposed by two Commissioners and Pai infers that their obstruction could result in the US falling behind in the 5G race.

One of those dissenters was Jessica Rosenworcel, who often disagrees with Pai. Here’s her tweet on the matter.

“This order turns its back on the schools and educational institutions that have made the 2.5 GHz band their home since 1962,” said Rosenworcel in her statement.  “Today the FCC takes the innovative effort to infuse this band with learning opportunities—an initiative that dates back to the Kennedy Administration—and reverts to uninspired and stale commercial spectrum policy.

“This is a shame. Instead of using these airwaves in creative ways, we take the 2.5 GHz band, cut education from its mission and collapse this spectrum into an overlay auction system that structurally advantages a single nationwide carrier.” She then went on at considerable length about how important education is.

Commissioner Starks was the other dissenter and wrote an essay on the importance of the education sector having access to this spectrum that it made Rosenworcel’s efforts look like a memo. With boring inevitability the two dissenters are both affiliated to the republican party and the three in favour are all republicans, which makes you wonder whether there is any principle involved at all.

As Light Reading informs us, this spectrum is likely to be used largely for rural coverage and especially for fixed wireless access. The US is a big country and there are still plenty of coverage gaps to fill. The education sector is apparently bemoaning the decision but if it has been largely reselling the spectrum maybe it’s the revenue that it will miss the most.