In June 2019, Germany’s national telecoms regulator, the Bundesnetzagentur (BNetzA) conducted an auction of 5G frequencies in mid-bands, including 3.5 GHz. BNetzA is now planning the release of high-band 26 GHz spectrum for 5G. This would make Germany, after Italy and Finland, only the third country in the European Union (EU) to enable the market for turbo-charged ‘millimeter wave’ 5G.
The release of millimeter-wave frequencies (mmWave) in the 26 GHz band will not only shape how 5G develops in Germany, but across all of Europe.
When deployed in higher-frequency millimeter wave spectrum, 5G comes with major enhancements in terms of bandwidth, speed, and near real-time responsiveness capable of supporting billions of connected devices. Of course, the laws of physics also impose some limitations on the capabilities and economics of networks using high-frequency spectrum when it comes to propagation over wide areas and through solid objects.
In a public consultation opened last year, BNetzA proposed separating the 26 GHz range into upper (26.5-27.5 GHz) and lower (24.25-26.5 GHz) sub-bands. Industry verticals and local use-cases would have regular access in the lower sub-band, and priority access in the upper sub-band. Mobile network operators (MNOs) have vigorously objected to the proposed division of the band, alleging it would squander most of its value.
The German MNOs point out that the upper portion of the 26 GHz band (26.5 GHz – 27.5 GHz) has an existing ecosystem and supply chain better suited to the structure and economics of network operators. According to the MNOs, restricting their access within 26 GHz would significantly hamper their ability to bring key 5G enhancements to market. However, as leading MNOs in Japan and South Korea have successfully launched 5G services in the upper portions of the 26 GHz band, a consensus has begun to emerge among European policy makers to leverage the scaling economics and momentum of this approach.
Deploying and scaling 5G in the 26 GHz band aligns the interests of MNOs and industry verticals.
Deploying and scaling 5G in the 26 GHz band aligns the interests of MNOs and industry verticals. The 26 GHz band offers very large bandwidth sufficient to accommodate the demands of diverse interests. Mobile operators are the stakeholders which have the demonstrated expertise, resources, and experience in deploying large scale, dense fixed and wireless network infrastructure. The investment and know-how of MNOs will be essential for reaching the economies of scale needed to reduce unit costs. Lower costs and solid technical standards will unlock the technology for affordable deployments by factories, farms, municipalities, utilities, and many other sectors, including small and medium enterprises that underpin the strength of the German economy. Without the economies of scale of the MNOs, though, millimeter wave 5G will be limited to a niche technology, therefore expensive and likely to attract fewer innovative users, use-cases, and applications.
BNetzA is working to finalize the 26 GHz consultation to define its future 5G millimeter wave strategy. There are positive indications of a consensus emerging for a unified and applications-agnostic approach. The basic rationale emerging is as follows:
- It is spectrum efficient to have a single 26 GHz band that doesn’t atrophy underutilized frequencies as the 5G ecosystem for mmWave develops.
- A single band for all types of applications across the board aligns Germany with other European countries as it allows MNOs to deploy 5G in the upper part of the band.
- Verticals as well as mobile operators would have access to the entire 26 GHz band, with verticals benefiting from economies of scale and supply chains to deploy enterprise networks.
Both consumer-facing and enterprise-driven innovations enabled by economies of scale in the 26 GHz band will position Germany (and the broader EU) to reap greater economic benefits from 5G and drive the future evolution of the technology. The success of Europe in the post-Covid-19 global economy depends on building this international leadership and technology-enabled prosperity.