The Arab world is taking a lead on seeking new spectrum assignments in lower bands, both in the sub-1 GHz frequencies being discussed at WRC-23 and with progress on the ‘lower mid-band’ 1500 MHz range in the region. The move shows continued spectrum leadership from Arab Spectrum Management Group (ASMG) countries and follows advanced decisions to use the whole of 3.3-3.8 GHz for 5G over two years ago.
The recent lower band progress has been both regional and national. In Saudi Arabia, CITC has been one of the countries at the centre of the developments and concluded its recent spectrum outlook analysis with the announcement that the 600 MHz band would be made available for mobile. Various ASMG member countries have been active in the discussion of this band at ITU groups, but KSA is the first country to announce its decision formally in the region.
Creating sufficient spectrum capacity for rural 5G is a problematic bottleneck. Without sufficient bandwidth, urban areas, which can be covered affordably by mid-band spectrum, will have superior 5G connectivity to rural areas. 600 MHz propagation will be a little better than, but largely similar to, what is being achieved already with 700 MHz. However, on top of these same excellent coverage characteristics the 600 MHz band will add crucial capacity to level up rural and urban areas and help lower the Digital Divide.
This additional wide-area capacity is an important backbone of the 5G experience, both in rural areas and for in-building penetration, and increased access to spectrum below 1 GHz will help a number of use cases. These include massive machine-type communications for IoT applications such as smart agriculture, water and energy management, C-V2X communications for road networks as well as eMBB for home / enterprise broadband. Government services such as smart education and smart healthcare will have the necessary capacity in rural areas to reach everyone.
CITC’s decision will help promote all these issues and their clear guidance on the roadmap towards improved wide-area and in-building capacity will help support universal 5G availability.
1500 MHz – TDD consideration
Arab countries have also been looking into another band that will help wider area capacity: the 1500 MHz range. CITC announced as part of the same spectrum analysis that it was giving further consideration to use of the 1500 MHz range at 1427-1518 MHz and this is part of a wider move led by the ASMG.
This band was identified for IMT use at WRC-15 and its development has been continuing since. CITC stated its plans to consider the band for 5G using TDD technologies and this is the technology that the ASMG as a whole recently stated it was pursuing. The consideration of this band as an option for the wider region will, it is hoped, create a harmonised TDD ecosystem for the band.
1500 MHz is today used in a number of countries although channel plans differ. It has been used in Japan for some time using an FDD channel arrangement. In Europe it has been rolled out following the completion of CEPT regulations three years ago, but this is using SDL. This option has led to over 200 devices compatible with 1500 MHz frequencies now being available for SDL use. European MNOs are today using this spectrum to provide a wide-area capacity boost – around a 130% throughput increase – to their networks. Latin America also has plans: CITEL agreed two years ago to use the band for SDL and a Brazilian auction is planned.
The TDD approach being considered by ASMG may be a crucial step in the next phase of the band’s development. The option to use the band for 5G to provide TDD uplink and downlink capacity has been discussed in a number of areas. Now, the ASMG announcement to industry on this use has been designed to encourage ecosystem development and ensure harmonised use of the band in the region.
5G evolution in the Arab region
The ASMG decision on 3.3-3.8 GHz, made two years ago, was an important first step in ensuring sufficient mid-band spectrum is available for 5G in the region. Local decisions and WRC-23 will allow this to be followed up by further mid-band spectrum assignments and ensure 5G reaches all consumers. In its recent spectrum outlook, CITC also announced plans to assign further 3.5 GHz spectrum to mobile –3.8-4.0 GHz – which is a valuable expansion of this band. However, for further evolution in the region, additional mid-band will be required, including the 6 GHz range, to avoid costly densification.
In the lower frequencies, looking at 600 MHz and 1500 MHz together demonstrates that both KSA and the wider Arab region are making clear progress towards wide-area capacity for 5G. In tandem with their promotion of sufficient launch spectrum – around 100 MHz per operator – in the 3.5 GHz range and the oncoming availability of mmWave frequencies in many countries, the region is making significant progress in encouraging one of the core principals of the GSMA: making 5G for all.