Spectrum was a prominent topic at the recent Mobile 360 APAC event on 2-3 August in Singapore. Participants from governments, regulatory bodies and the mobile industry engaged in lively discussions and exchanged views on the major spectrum policy topics impacting the future of mobile services.
Spectrum vision for 2030
Radio spectrum is the core of mobile connectivity and underpins much of the digital innovation and benefits we enjoy today. By 2030, GSMA estimates that 5G is expected to boost global GDP by over US$960 billion.
However, this is possible only with the optimal supply of spectrum in the low (sub-1 GHz), mid (1-7 GHz) and high bands (mmWaves) to enable the full suite of 5G features and support use cases across enhanced mobile broadband, massive IoT and industry-grade connectivity. Without sufficient spectrum, some 40% of this value would be lost.
Axiata provided a mobile operator’s perspective on 5G in mobile-first emerging markets, where the exponential growth in mobile data traffic shows no signs of slowing, yet revenues have been flat or declining in recent years. For operators, 5G will be vital to meeting this demand by lowering the average cost per user.
More spectrum will not only improve the quality of mobile services but also enable fibre-like connectivity to homes and businesses. Although common strategies such as site densification and shutdown of 2G and 3G networks are useful, access to harmonised spectrum is vital. Many developing APAC markets are still some way behind the leaders in APAC – Australia, China, Japan and South Korea.
According to mobile equipment vendor Huawei, a coordinated approach using a combination of existing and new mid-band spectrum, coupled with low bands (e.g. 700 MHz), will be key in enabling high quality and ubiquitous 5G coverage. Other recommendations are the availability of 80-100 MHz of contiguous mid-band spectrum for capacity, technology-neutral licensing and affordable spectrum costs.
The following panel discussion, featuring speakers from regulators, operators and equipment vendors, covered a wide range of policy and regulatory issues for 5G – from the bands needed and their timing to the variety of 5G use cases and how best to enable them. The Australian regulator ACMA highlighted the benefits of an open and consultative approach to 5G spectrum planning. There was strong consensus among panellists that a clear 5G roadmap will help operators to more effectively plan their 5G investments and network rollout.
While 5G capabilities open up new possibilities beyond enhanced mobile broadband, developing new use cases across different enterprise sectors such as smart ports and advanced manufacturing require operators to collaborate with a broader set of stakeholders. For Thai operator AIS, this process began well ahead of the 5G auction in 2020 to allow time for experimentation and finetuning of technology and commercial strategies. The need for supportive demand-side policies from the government as an important enabler for 5G development was also emphasised.
Spectrum in the 6 GHz band
The 6 GHz band (5925-7125 MHz) is a keenly-watched band with many countries currently deciding how best to manage this spectrum. As 5G grows and matures over the coming years, spectrum needs will expand, particularly in the mid-bands, where an average of 2 GHz is required for each country to satisfy the demand for 5G.
Today, markets in the APAC region have only made available around 850 MHz of mid-band spectrum on average for mobile services. Ensuring future spectrum supply in the 6 GHz band (5925-7125 MHz) will be essential for developing mobile services and securing maximum benefits from 5G.
A new GSMA Intelligence study on the 6 GHz IMT device and network infrastructure ecosystems found that the outlook for the 6 GHz IMT ecosystem is robust. In June 2022, 3GPP completed technical specifications of 5G NR band 104 as part of 3GPP Release 17 for the upper part of the 6 GHz band (6425-7125 MHz) for licensed 5G services. In addition, a new work item was created for specification of the full 5925-7125 MHz band in Release 18.
Notably, there are no technical barriers to developing, and commercialising, 6 GHz 5G networks. With the 6 GHz band, operators can effectively expand network capacity by reusing their 3.5 GHz networks, enabling cost-effective deployment. Equipment availability is expected in the 2024-2025 timeframe, with commercial rollout of 6 GHz by mobile operators expected in the 2025-2030 timeframe.
The Malaysia regulator MCMC noted the crucial role of mid-band spectrum and is currently considering its strategy for the 6 GHz band. Among industry representatives, there is widespread recognition of the importance of more 6 GHz spectrum for future 5G use. Singtel and Axiata echoed this view during the session, with both operators joining Huawei in supporting the harmonisation of the 6 GHz band for IMT at WRC-23.