Keeping everyone and everything connected: How temporary access to spectrum can ease congestion during the COVID-19 crisis

In the wake of the social restrictions in place to help manage the threat of COVID-19, billions of people worldwide are relying on mobile access as family interactions, socialising and work activities move online. While the world shuts down normal activities to limit the spread of COVID-19, schools, businesses and day-to-day interactions continue to move from face-to-face to the internet. Mobile broadband, fixed wireless connections and mobile apps have become the main tools to remain operational and in contact with medical professionals, work colleagues and loved ones. We are witnessing surges across mobile voice, text and data services in both download and upload streams, as a result of changing user demands due to this extraordinary situation.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a large number of countries have declared and implemented a state of emergency. During such an unprecedented situation, mobile operators have been working closely with governments to support the management of the crisis through the provision of mobile services to the public and government. Spectrum resources made available by governments during the crisis can contribute to the optimisation of mobile network infrastructure in order to better serve the needs of communities and public services.

Some mechanisms that are being implemented are:

  • Providing short-term/emergency spectrum licences to MNOs to access any portions of unallocated spectrum, renewable depending on national requirements
  • Expediting the issue of short-term/trial licences to MNOs where new technologies may enable operators to assist on delivering or augmenting connectivity and deploying services on an ad-hoc basis
  • Facilitating and expediting access to backhaul spectrum
  • Extending deadlines for any ongoing transitions or renewals for licensees providing high-speed broadband and other critical services
  • Removing red tape and restrictions on ways to immediately access more spectrum, including spectrum sharing

We have already seen some impressive examples of governments and mobile operators working together to help manage this unrivalled and rapidly changing situation, including:

  • The United States Federal Communications Commission has granted short-term access to available mobile spectrum in coverage bands (600 and 700 MHz) and capacity bands (1.7-2.2 GHz and 2.5 GHz) to provide additional mobile broadband capacity.
  • The Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) in Ireland is temporarily releasing extra radio spectrum in the 700 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands to provide additional capacity for mobile phone and broadband provision and liberalizing the use of 2.1 GHz so that it can be used for 4G and other technologies, rather than just for 3G.
  • Jordan has renewed the already released short-term basis spectrum to MNOs in capacity bands, sub-1 GHz and for fixed wireless access until the end of the year for free.
  • Saudi Arabia is releasing available spectrum to MNOs in capacity bands, sub-1 GHz on a short-term basis (700 MHz band).
  • Tunisia is making all IMT spectrum tech-neutral on a short-term basis.
  • In Panama, the Regulator (​Autoridad Nacional de los Servicios Públicos) will grant temporary spectrum licenses to MNOs for additional capacity upon request.
  • An agreement between MNOs and Anatel in Brazil shows the agency will take any regulatory action necessary, including with spectrum, to make sure all services remain intact.
  • Ghana’s regulator NCA has granted Vodafone and MTN temporary access to more spectrum for free so they can handle traffic increases.
  • Oman’s regulator TRA has allocated additional mobile spectrum in the 1,800 MHz and 2.1 GHz bands to the Sultanate’s licensed network operators on a temporary basis and at no cost.
  • In Malaysia, regulator MCMC is providing Telekom Malaysia with early access to 700 MHz and 3.5 GHz on a trial basis. The resulting 5G network will provide connectivity at COVID-19 quarantine centres.
  • South Africa’s regulator ICASA has made available the spectrum bands for temporary assignment in the following bands: 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 2.3 GHz, 2.6 GHz and 3.5 GHz.
  • DRC’s regulator has positively responded to the GSMA’ request by assigning additional frequencies to the four MNOs for 3 months in order to provide additional capacity.
  • Iraq’s 2G and 3G licences have been renewed for a total of eight years. That’s another three years for free, compared to the country’s original plan.

In addition to providing access to more spectrum, regulators and governments are looking at other ways to promote better connectivity by supporting additional investments. For example, Canada, Romania and South Africa are delaying spectrum annual fee payments.

Currently, mobile operators are sustaining the sudden and significant increase in traffic demand. The GSMA calls for governments to work with the mobile industry to find ways to support the mobile industry’s enormous efforts to keep everyone and everything connected in this increasing time of need.

We will continue to add to this list as more examples of facilitating access to spectrum become available

The GSMA’s mission is to help governments and regulators manage spectrum in a fair and transparent way to maximise societal benefits. For more information, see gsma.com/spectrum.