Spectrum allocation “vital” for 5G, Qualcomm urges governments

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Spectrum allocation will be vital for the development of 5G, Qualcomm has warned, urging governments to ensure operators can buy chunks of more than 100MHz of contiguous frequency.

Ben Timmons, Senior Director, Business Development, Qualcomm, was the latest executive to outline its hopes and fears for 5G this week as the picture of how the technology will take shape becomes clearer ahead of its standardisation.

Timmons was optimistic, saying the telecoms industry is better placed with 5G than it was with other technologies at a comparable stage. He says: "There's much more coherence about what it's about as a technology than any of the previous cellular technologies were at a similar stage. There's a coherent vision within the ecosystem about what it is."

Where there are issues are around the development of infrastructure. A fully standardised 5G new radio is expected around 2020 (indeed, Qualcomm offers its own NR sub-6GHz prototype system and trial platform), but it's likely to use the existing core network for LTE until a 5G-ready one is developed.

Another issue is spectrum and the adequate allocation of both sub-6GHz and frequency at a higher level. Timmons says there is a danger of governments making a mistake in this area, by offering smaller chunks to operators and other telcos. He says: "If 5G is going to work, we are going to need 80-100MHz chunks for sale."

Like others, he splits 5G's appeal into three, spanning enhanced mobile broadband, mission critical communications and massive IoT.

He says: "No one size fits all. There will be different elements for different applications - extreme data rates and ultra-low latencies. Operators can pick and choose for the first time."

He claims Qualcomm sits in the evolutionary school of 5G. He says the likes of Cat-1 and NB-IoT will be "extended and broadened" into 5G even though they will predate its launch.

Given the promise of these technologies, in addition to carrier aggregation pushing speeds beyond 1GBps, does he feel this could delay the adoption of 5G? Telcos are vocal about their financial constraints and may choose to double down and sweat existing assets instead.

Timmons argues to the contrary. He says: "The issue is that each carrier an operator needs to add brings more complexity. 5G will give a better ability to handle multiple carriers."

Regarding the Internet of Things, he adds: "There are no real location capabilities in NB-IoT. Voice capabilities are relatively weak with NB-IoT. I expect that some means of enhancing voice capabilities will be developed.

"The air interface will change between Releases 13 and 15 but it will be part of the standardisation process. In a way there is a big change on the mobile broadband side but I think the change with IoT will be incremental."

Despite the evolution from LTE to 5G, he warns that chipset makers may not find it easy to integrate the wide range of 5G requirements into a chipset that is economically sound and usable. "It's not an environment for a challenger," he warns.

When pushed on whether this means the market could be closed to start-ups, whose innovation usually results in lower costs and volume sales, he rows back, suggesting this could only be a short-term issue. "It's going to be hard to do that in 2019 because of the economics that silicon demands. Once we work that out then volumes are everything. It's a matter of who is going to lead," Timmons says.

"With NB-IoT and Cat-1, there are a lot of companies putting together the first chipsets because it is relatively simple. I don't think we will see that with mainstream 5G."

Speaking of stragglers, how does Qualcomm view Europe, given how it lagged behind Asia and the United States in the LTE era? Timmons is momentarily lost for words when asked if he believes Europe can ever catch up on its rivals, biding for time by deciding to "choose his words carefully".

He says finally: "Our view of espousing an early launch of 5G is that it is economically competitive and beneficial to Europe and that's something we really agree with. Some operators have been very keen to move forward quickly and we would support that. It's important for Europe to engage and develop the early launch of 5G."

Hardly a 'yes', then but he does urge European operators to make themselves 5G ready. "There is a lot of things they can do that would make it easier to roll out 5G. Things like NFV will become more important. An operator that has pushed virtualisation and modernised the design of their base stations with, say, MIMO, they could roll out 5G very quickly."

Whether they do so or not remains to be seen. The coming years will reveal who is most hungry to set the agenda.