The future of 5G in France has been the topic of several public policy and regulatory initiatives following the country’s early auction of 700 MHz spectrum for mobile services in 2015. However, despite early progress and the best intentions, France is more than a year behind many of its neighbors in launching 5G. With commercial 5G services available in ten countries in Europe (EU27 + UK) since late 2019, the French will have their work cut out for them to catch up.
Even in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and ongoing lockdowns, authorities in a number of neighboring countries have made progress towards the release of key spectrum for 5G. Public and private sector leaders have rightly prioritized the enablement of 5G services for boosting economic resilience and a technology-led recovery by promoting the efficient provision of telehealth, remote education, and virtual work.
ARCEP, the French telecom regulator recently announced the second stage of its 3.5 GHz spectrum auction will take place in September. With this, ARCEP is targeting a year-end 2020 commercial launch of 5G services by mobile network operators (MNOs). France will kick off the 5G-era, somewhere in the middle of the European pack.
During the first stage of ARCEP’s 3.5 GHz auction, a minimum price of €350 million was set per 50 MHz block of spectrum. Four 50 MHz blocks put up for auction and the four leading French MNOs (Orange, SFR, Bouygues Telecom, and Free Mobile) were the only bidders. This can partly be attributed to the fact that the French reserve price (per MHz divided per population) came out to € 0.104, nearly double the median of € 0.057 paid for similar spectrum across Europe and the Nordic countries. It is worth noting that the French 3.5 GHz spectrum pricing (per MHz per population) was nearly one third the price paid in Italy and about two thirds the prices paid in Germany and the UK.
As the only bidders in the first round of the 3.5 GHz auction, Orange, SFR, Bouygues Telecom, and Free Mobile automatically qualified to bid on the remaining 11 blocks of 10 MHz spectrum scheduled for September (at the same starting price per MHz as round 1 of the auction).
The lack of clarity on the near-term availability of 26 GHz in France risks that the country may continue to lag behind in fulfilling its policy objectives.
Millimeter Wave Spectrum in France
While progress is being made in the release of 3.5 GHz “mid-band” spectrum in France, the process and timeline for releasing the 26 GHz high-band spectrum has been less clear. Also referred to as millimeter-wave (mmWave), 26 GHz spectrum is essential for realizing the full potential of 5G in terms of throughput, speed, and low latency.
ARCEP has indicated the upper part of this band (26.5-27.5 GHz) will become available for 5G services first, once spectrum sharing arrangements between mobile and satellite operators are concluded. The remaining lower portion of the band (24.25-26.5 GHz) will gradually be made available for 5G operators as spectrum sharing safeguards are put in place to ensure co-existence with radio astronomy and Earth observation satellites.
ARCEP recognizes that 26 GHz and other mmWave bands are needed to satisfy the very high bandwidth requirements of mobile networks in the densest traffic zones and support the development of new 5G services dedicated to industrial and other users.
However, with less clarity on the near-term availability of mmWave-spectrum in France, a risk remains that the country may continue to lag behind in fulfilling its own national digital policy objectives, as well as those defined by the EU.
On a bright side, there are several positive examples of MNOs and vertical industry players successfully joining forces under experimental 5G licenses awarded in 2019 and 2020. Extending these collaborative relationships into a fully licensed commercial 5G environment in the near future could establish an innovative and trendsetting precedent example for the rest of Europe.