With Europe’s biggest countries using lockdowns and quarantines to battle the spread of the coronavirus, the importance of mobile networks has become more apparent than ever, as people work, study, and shop for essentials from home, requiring connectivity from both fixed and mobile networks. But the lockdowns have also caused delays in processes to award spectrum for 5G in countries such as France, Spain, Poland, Austria, and the United Kingdom.
These delays increase the risk that Europe will repeat in 5G what happened in 4G, when early in the past decade European countries fell behind their peers in Asia and North America in tapping the benefits of the most advanced mobile technology. For a region that was the unquestioned global leader in 2G and 3G, this is a gloomy prospect. However, European societies and economies can benefit from timely new investments in 5G mobile infrastructure if they take action now to prepare for when the pandemic retreats.
Finland’s disposition to maintain its 26 GHz auction schedule, starting now and ending in June, reveals the capability of European governments to keep moving forward in hard times. In Hungary, an auction in late March generated €362.3 million for the government, with the three operators acquiring a total of 385 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz, 2.1 GHz, and 3.5 GHz spectrum bands.
It’s a 5G World
5G has arrived. Today 70 commercial 5G networks have officially been launched worldwide. By the end of March 2020, 381 operators in 123 countries had announced they were investing in 5G, according to the Global Suppliers Association (GSA). At the end of January 2020, 78 vendors had announced 208 5G devices. Almost all devices support 3.5 GHz, one third of them support millimeter-wave (mmWave) bands, and a quarter already include both.
The U.S., China, the Special Administrative Territory of Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea have taken the lead in releasing mmWave bands that play an essential role in defining the 5G experience:
- In the U.S., 5G services have been launched in the 600 MHz band (T-Mobile) and in the mmWave holdings of Verizon and AT&T (both hold large amounts of bandwidth in the 39 GHz band, while Verizon also does in the 28 GHz, and AT&T in the 24 GHz band).
- China launched 5G services in 2019 and Hong Kong at the beginning of April 2020. They both began offering these services in the 3.5 GHz band, and both will release 26 GHz spectrum this year at no cost to operators.
- Japan awarded 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz spectrum to four operators in 2019. The three incumbent Japanese operators–NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, and Softbank–launched commercial 5G services almost simultaneously in late March 2020. The new fourth Japanese operator, Rakuten, is expected to launch 5G services later this year (it only launched its first 4G LTE service in April of 2020).
- South Korea auctioned off 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz frequencies in mid-2018. The three Korean operators have been offering 5G services since late 2018.
5G investment plans are a critical component of economic recovery strategies in Asia and North America. They could also support post-pandemic European growth.
Japan’s DoCoMo emphasizes two significant goals behind its extensive 5G initiatives: the creation of new value and solutions for social issues. The new value will be created especially in entertainment and sports, while solutions to social problems will flourish through multiple partnerships in such areas as healthcare, education, new work environments, and community development. DoCoMo is planning a comprehensive, coordinated rollout of its 5G network and services with 5G devices, including new rate plans adapted to the expected usage patterns of 5G users. DoCoMo is also exploiting the advantage of mmWave in indoor environments. Small-cell mmWave systems can provide much more capacity to all users in stadiums compared to lower frequencies.
In China, 5G is in use to fight COVID-19:
- High-definition video conferences are supporting shared medical images such as CAT scans among doctors in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Instant transmission of high-resolution medical images, to speed up diagnosis and the formulation of treatment plans, can only be supported by 5G network speeds.
- 5G powered robots are delivering drugs, checking temperatures, offering medical advice, guiding emergency routes, and cleaning, and disinfecting rooms.
- The Chinese government is pushing mobile operators to pursue aggressive 5G investment plans as a critical component of its economic recovery strategy.
What Can Europe Do?
Within the group of EU-27 plus the UK only Italy had auctioned off 26 GHz as of the end of March 2020. Just one other EU country—Finland—has scheduled mmWave auctions. During 2019, commercial 5G services in the 3.5 GHz band were launched in several European countries, including Austria, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK. Below we review the situation in four key countries:
- Spain: The state has auctioned off 3.5 GHz but delayed the auction of 700 MHz planned for the first half of 2020 due to the health emergency. That allows planning a spectrum sale for later this year, including also 26 GHz, to move forward the rollout of 5G with millimeter-wave spectrum as well as low and mid bands.
- France: The country has yet to auction either 3.5 GHz or 26 GHz. The auctions have been delayed by the COVID-19 crisis. As part of an economic recovery strategy, it is vital to plan these auctions for later in the year.
- Germany: The Bundesnetzagentur (Federal Network Agency) has completed a consultation on the future of the 26 GHz band and is currently reviewing the comments received. The regulator envisages awarding frequencies for nationwide 5G mobile broadband services in the range 24.25-26.5 GHz, while the range 26.5-27.5 GHz will be assigned primarily for local, land- or property-related uses for industrial and agricultural applications. The Bundesnetzagentur has yet to define the final rules for the 26 GHz auction. As the leading economy in Europe and the most populous nation in the EU, Germany could become a regional leader in the development of 5G mmWave.
- United Kingdom: The UK is not as far along as Germany in the process of releasing the 26 GHz band for 5G. The regulator Ofcom is working with the Ministry of Defence to decide the future of the range between 26.5-27.5 GHz. Ofcom made available local licensees for indoor shared use in the lower range of 24.25-26.5 GHz, adopting a spectrum-sharing framework. Further Ofcom action is required to clear the upper 1 GHz of the 26 GHz band for civilian 5G usage and avoiding other potential sources of delay.