European Commission expands the radio spectrum available for 5G

As more devices are connected to 5G networks, more radio capacity will be needed. [Alexander Supertramp/Shutterstock]

The European Commission has decided to expand the frequency bands available for 5G applications. Still, radio frequency allocation remains a sensitive topic as conflicting interests intersect over old generation networks and new bands.

With this decision, the EU executive wants to make sure that the same bands are being used across the bloc, expanding the radio spectrum for 5G beyond the so-called ‘pioneering bands’. The radio bands concerned are the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz, which are already employed for 2G, 3G and 4G.

“Several EU countries already started expanding the spectrum available for 5G. The fact that the Commission made a binding decision is important towards technological neutrality,” said ICT legal expert Innocenzo Genna.

According to the EU’s 5G Action Plan, all major urban areas should enjoy 5G coverage by 2025, but this means that more radio capacity will be needed as more devices are connected to 5G networks. Therefore, either frequency bands already in use will need to be re-allocated, or new ones will need to be made available.

2G/3G phase-out

For Gérard Pogorel, a professor at Télécom Paris and former adviser to several European governments on ICT matters, the harmonisation of 5G bands raises the question of a coordinated phase-out from older generation networks.

In several regions of the world, including the United States, major mobile operators AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are phasing out 3G networks. By contrast, in Europe, 2G and 3G networks are still in use, although there are some individual dismissal cases like TIM in Italy.

“It is important that 2G and 3G are discontinued at the same time in the EU,” Pogorel noted, stressing that discontinuity of services might otherwise occur when crossing the border.

The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ association (ETNO) estimates that 4G covers 99.5% of the European population.

However, some industries still rely on 2G for parts of their operations and are resisting the phase-off. A case in point is the automotive industry, with the eCalls that automatically require assistance in serious accidents. Alerts for natural disasters also run on 2G.

“In eventual case of 2G/3G switch-off, the spectrum could be repurposed for 4G and 5G technologies. There are two benefits here: mobile network operators would reduce deployment costs, and it would improve the quality of networks,” said Gabriel Daia, ETNO’s communications manager.

In January, the European Court of Auditors released a special report highlighting the slow pace of spectrum allocation across the EU. By October 2021, member states had only assigned 53% of the total 5G spectrum that was supposed to be available by the end of 2020.

These delays contribute to the sluggish rollout of 5G networks, together with low investments, pandemic disruption and the bans on Chinese providers. However, while 5G deployment is expected to pick up the pace, another battleground has already emerged.

Wi-Fi vs 5G

For Zach Meyers, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, the Commission’s decision on 5 GHz was a “low hanging fruit”. The real struggle is quietly taking place around the 6 GHz, a band so far primarily untouched by spectrum allocations.

“The EU, and governments elsewhere in the world, face a long-term challenge of deciding how to allocate scarce spectrum. Research suggests that as demand for both Wi-Fi and 5G increases, both services are facing a shortfall of the available spectrum – meaning lower-quality or higher-cost services,” Meyers said.

More spectrum makes the 5G rollout cheaper for mobile operators, in turn lowering the phone bills. The argument is that keeping the costs down, consumers would prefer mobile data to Wi-Fi usage. For instance, during the pandemic, mobile data consumption increased despite more people being stuck at home.

At the same time, mobile operators argue that leaving an unlicensed frequency for Wi-Fi might leave the spectrum unused in many areas, whereas 5G networks are meant to reach almost ubiquitous coverage. Auctioning spectrum is also lucrative for authorities.

By contrast, Wi-Fi tends to provide a more stable connection. As the Internet of Things sector is expected to boom in the coming years, demand is expected to surge and more spectrum will be needed as Wi-Fi networks already interfere in crowded areas.

This competition over the 6GHz band allocation sees mobile operators pushing for 5G, allowing them to expand the telecom market. By contrast, tech companies are making a case for Wi-Fi, as it is a less regulated environment where they would be better able to monetise data.

“We urge the Commission and the member states to proceed swiftly with opening the rest of the 6 GHz band for licence-exempt use by [WAS/RLAN] technologies, such as Wi-Fi,” said Martha Suárez, president of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, an association that includes Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

“This is essential if the EU wants to avoid falling behind its global competitors.”

Legal expert Genna believes the European Commission is waiting for the market forces to play out before allocating the 6GHz band because, although 5G has a better performance in terms of data latency, it is still an underdeveloped and fragmented market compared to the Wi-Fi one.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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