GSMA urges government action "today" on preparing for 5G

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Reality has bitten for operators and their 5G strategies, the GSMA has claimed, as it urged governments to work on preparing for next generation networks immediately.

Last month, the trade association made its first intervention into the 5G debate for several months, amid fears the current models were not fit for the purpose of the future and concern about fragmentation.

Speaking to Mobile Europe, Brett Tarnutzer, Head of Spectrum says governments need to begin planning today and work closely with the mobile industry to identify and carve out the bands for 5G. This work, of course, comes far in advance of WRC-19, which determines which frequencies will rule for the next generation.

"While mobile bands that will be used for 5G are to be agreed at WRC-19, in reality, the work for securing spectrum for 5G is already underway. Some countries are investigating other mobile bands for 5G services, including those identified at WRC-15 and earlier," says Tarnutzer.

He notes that the European Union's 5G Action Plan, announced in September, considers 700 MHz and 3.4-3.8 GHz in addition to the higher- frequency bands (for 24 GHz and beyond) that will be considered at WRC-19.

Yesterday, Europe agreed on proposals that the 700MHz band should belong to telcos, as part of its wider 5G Action Plan and Digital Single Market initiatives.

Over the summer, the GSMA attacked the European Union for not moving fast enough. Has anything changed in the intervening months? Tarnutzer chooses his words carefully.

He says: "Harmonised spectrum is a prerequisite for enabling the investments needed to deliver 5G leadership – this is not just about what operators need, but about what society and the European economy needs to allow Europe to make the most of a vital and scarce resource.

"In addition to identifying spectrum, the European Commission has recognised the importance of incentivising a step change in infrastructure investment to fulfil the potential of 5G and its action plan sets out a roadmap for public and private investment, including supporting longer term licenses.

"This, along with its spectrum proposals, contributes to addressing the fragmented and inconsistent approach that exists today across the European Union.”

It's this last line that is key. "Contributes to addressing" does not mean "solves". Given the GSMA's former comments, it appears more help is required.

So what can be done? Tarnutzer, says long-term 5G licences with "predictable" renewal processes are essential, as well as the need to ensure these licences and technology and service neutral.

He adds: “Furthermore, to allow for significant network investment and to ensure spectrum gets assigned, high spectrum prices need to be discouraged. Governments can play a role by not setting prices artificially high. We have seen this happen recently in India with the 700 MHz band, where reserve prices were set very high, resulting in the entire band being left unsold in the auction.” 

Finland, France and Germany are among the countries that have already started work on freeing up the 700MHz band for operators.

The end of each year is always a time for reflection and it seems fair to say 2016 has seen a sliver of doubt creep in among the endless "world firsts", predictions and utopian ideals of 5G networks, while details about the economics and specifics continue to remain off the agenda.

David Hutton, Head of Networks, GSMA, accepts that the past 12 months has seen a change in optimism among operators about 5G. He says: "Last year we saw a huge amount of hype regarding 5G but I think that is being replaced with a level of realism about what 5G will actually be. 5G will have numerous use cases and different regions around the world will inevitably have different deployment strategies which may explain the perception that there isn’t a unified operator view.

"Some operators may also feel that they don’t yet see the benefits of deployment or a clear return on investment but that is not to say they are unenthusiastic."

Mobile World Congress in February may give more clarity on what is happening, but the GSMA is demanding action from governments today to make things easier for the industry.