The benefits of technology neutral spectrum licences

For governments that want consumers and businesses in their country to benefit from the best possible mobile broadband experience, support for technology neutral spectrum licensing is a must.

A new report from the GSMA entitled “The benefits of technology neutral spectrum licences” takes an in-depth look at this topic. First the basics, technology neutrality lets operators replace for example GSM with 4G and soon 5G in a particular frequency band. And do so at a pace that’s driven by market demand. The process, which is also called reframing, allows spectrum to be used more efficiently, which should always be the overarching spectrum management goal for all regulators and governments.

Assigning technology neutral spectrum rights has been considered best practice for over a decade. Consequently, most regulators around the world, including those in the European Union, North America, Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia have adopted the principle of technology neutrality for mobile spectrum licences.

In Europe, Finland was the first to allow the 900 MHz to be technology neutral which meant mobile users benefited from far greater geographic 3G coverage than other European countries. And in Asia, technology neutrality in Singapore resulted in one of the world’s most advanced mobile markets where consumers and enterprises benefit from high-speed, low-latency and low-cost mobile communications services.

To get technology neutrality right, there are a few things to keep in mind:
• Attempts to extract additional revenue has misfired and held back the introduction of new mobile technologies;
• While a renewal process provides an opportunity to re-issue spectrum licences as neutral, regulators should not delay the introduction while waiting for the expiry dates of existing licences;
• When assigning new spectrum, regulators should do so in a technology neutral manner or at the very least not restrict the introduction of next-generation technologies, such as 5G.

Technical advancements are in fact making the decision to allow and actively support technology neutrality easier. The options for managing refarmed bands have improved with leaps and bounds, for example.

The most important development is the ability to ‘gracefully refarm’ bands so they are used simultaneously for several technologies – including 4G and 5G. This allows for the introduction newer technologies in line with increasing mobile broadband demand while at the same time supporting legacy users. For regulators this means they no longer have to worry that refarming will leave legacy users unserved.

It is important to note that allowing mobile operators to refarm spectrum doesn’t let them do anything they like within a band. For example, other spectrum users are still protected.

But, in the end, implementing technology neutrality in countries where it still isn’t allowed should be an easy decision. As a result, users benefit from better mobile broadband coverage, higher data speeds and lower mobile data prices than would otherwise be the case. The socio-economic benefits stemming from these improvements make it a win-win for governments and all mobile data subscribers; consumers as well as enterprises.

The report is written by Coleago Consulting. The full version is available for download here. It and other collateral on topics such spectrum pricing, 5G and WRC-19 can be found in the resource section on the GSMA spectrum team’s website.