Spectrum sharing has potential – but needs careful planning

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing spectrum for rising mobile data traffic and evolving services. Exclusive licensing is essential to high quality, wide area mobile services while spectrum sharing can play a complementary role. But for sharing to get out the starting blocks, we must choose the right bands and sharing framework.

The continued rise in data traffic means mobile services rely on access to growing amounts of spectrum to meet demand. Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to completely clear new frequency bands to improve speeds and mobile coverage. Spectrum sharing can help, when clearing a band is not possible, by enabling mobile access to additional bands in areas, and at times, when other services are not using them.

A new position paper from the GSMA’s spectrum team highlights the main points to think about when considering spectrum sharing to support reliable, high-quality mobile services. Firstly, the proposed band should provide enough spectrum in areas and at times where mobile operators are seeing growing demand. 4G and 5G benefit from wide bands, so if this isn’t available then sharing may struggle to deliver the experience consumers expect.

Secondly, is getting the sharing framework right. The framework controls who can share the band and defines the usage rights and limitations. A successful framework is simple, usable and tailored to the needs of the users. It should include certainty of access and sufficient block sizes to support high speed services, for example. Key variables are the number of access tiers, access guarantees and access terms.

While spectrum sharing holds potential, it cannot supplant the need for exclusively licensed mobile spectrum. The global success of mobile services rests on a foundation of exclusively licensed spectrum as it supports widespread services and the certainty needed for long-term heavy network investment and high-quality service.

A real concern is when approaches to spectrum sharing compromise access to licensed spectrum and thus risk slower speeds and worse coverage. For example, if spectrum sharing means an insufficient amount of licensed spectrum is available to mobile operators where and when they need it then sharing may limit, or eliminate, the potential for new 5G services in the band. Countries that want to maximise 5G’s potential should prioritise licensing 80-100 MHz of contiguous spectrum per operator in prime 5G ‘mid-bands’ (e.g. 3.5 GHz) and around 1 GHz per operator in millimetre wave bands. When sharing makes this impossible, 5G services may disappoint.

The goal with the position paper is to help regulators and governments navigate this sometimes-tricky topic. The GSMA’s positions on spectrum sharing are:

1. Spectrum sharing is an opportunity to open up access to new spectrum for mobile services but needs careful planning to succeed

2. Exclusive licensing has been central to the success of mobile services and must continue

3. Sharing will only be useful for operators if the proposed band is harmonised for mobile use. It also must be available and usable in sufficient quantities in areas and at times where needed

4. Operators favour a simple sharing framework that is investment-friendly and supports reliable, high quality mobile services

5. Mobile operators should not be prohibited from voluntarily sharing their spectrum to support faster services, improve coverage and drive innovation

6. Sharing can play a role in the 5G era but poor implementation risks harming its potential

7. Regulators need to help incentivise incumbents in attractive bands to share

8. The framework should balance the current and future requirements of incumbents and sharers

The full position paper is available here.