Belgian MNOs, regulator BIPT face off over 3.5 GHz band

Wednesday 5 April 2017 | 16:40 CET | Background

The BIPT has extended the 3.5 GHz spectrum licence of Broadband Belgium for five years, until April 2024. The regulator's decision attempts to balance the operator's interests with the sector's growing interest in 5G. The 3.4-3.8 GHz range is considered prime spectrum for developing 5G, and the three big mobile operators are not pleased with the BIPT's decision. They would rather see an auction of the frequencies soon, and not a newcomer holding the essential spectrum.

Start-up in 3.5 GHz band

Broadband Belgium (BBB) is developing wireless broadband services for the business market. In March 2016 it took over the spectrum rights for the 3.5 GHz band previously held by B.Lite. It also has spectrum from Mac Telecom in the 10.5 GHz band, with a licence valid until 2019. According to the BIPT, that spectrum is not used commercially. 

BBB has two blocks of 50 MHz, but the licences are not national. One block covers 13 municipalities and the other 57, of which most are in and around Brussels. BBB has announced plans to offer TDD-LTE services, but is still working on selecting equipment suppliers for the network. 

The licences have now been extended for five years, to 25 April 2024. The extension comes with conditions, that BBB actively use the frequencies. Broadband Belgium agreed to develop a certain number of TD-LTE radio heads (the exact number was not made public). The network capacity must reach at least 76 Mbps per municipality and in total 10 Gbps within two years and 20 Gbps within four years. 

Band is largely empty…

The spectrum is in the ranges 3,450-3,500 MHz and 3,550-3,600 MHz. Two other, much smaller providers are also active in this range. Gridmax/Gigaweb has 2x10 MHz in just four municipalities, valid until 6 March 2021. Citymesh holds rights to 2x10 MHz in 13 cities until 7 May 2025. 

There are another two blocks of 30 MHz free in the 3GPP band 42. Between 3,600 and 3,800 MHz, the French-language public broadcaster RTBF operates microwave links and ground stations for satellite communications. 

The government assumes that the RTBF will find a suitable alternative. Its licences were awarded in 2004, with the possibility of a five-year extension. The current licenceholders all received their rights based on the royal decree of 24 March 2009. According to the BIPT, this decree is outdated but still valid. 

 …but interest is growing

Demand for the spectrum was limited in the days of Wimax, while lower ranges, such as 1,800 and 800 MHz, were sought after for 4G. The BIPT looked again at interest in the 3.4-3.8 GHz band in late 2014 and concluded that demand was limited in the near term.  As of March 2015, the operators did not appear interested, at least not under the prevailing conditions. 

This situation is also outdated. The EU's RSPG (Radio Spectrum Policy Group) is preparing a recommendation to designate the range as a 'pioneer band' for developing 5G. The latest generation of mobile technology is expected to use multiple bands, but 700 MHz for coverage and 3.4-3.8 GHz for capacity are expected to be among the first. Later on, much higher frequencies (such as 24-28 GHz, 37-39 GHz and 60 GHz) will be employed to achieve ultra-high capacity and speeds in the hundreds of gigabits per second. 

The industry expects to be able to use the 3.4-3.8 GHz range first, due to a number of factors. First off, the licences are fairly similar in all three ITU regions, which makes it easier to develop a globally compatible system. Equipment is also already available. And third, this provides continuity with 4G networks and services.

Becoming a leader in 5G…

The BIPT supports this vision for 5G and as a result is not issuing anymore licences based on the royal decree of 2009. The Belgian regulator wants to hold a 5G spectrum auction as soon as possible, likely in 2018 or 2019.

In total 400 MHz could be on offer in the range, under licences running from 2020 to 2040. Legislation for this still needs to be drafted, as now the royal decree is still in place. 

As a result, the BIPT is working on two goals. On the one hand, existing operators need to protect their investments, like Broadband Belgium. On the other hand, Belgium should be a European leader in 5G.

…with a big auction

The 5G spectrum is expected to include at least 260 MHz of the maximum 400 MHz available. The BIPT said this should largely meet the 5G goals, especially as the existing operators in the band don't have national licences. The BIPT proposes a cap of a maximum 100 MHz per operator, in order to ensure four active operators in the range. 

However, an auction of 260 MHz is not going to give even three operators 100 MHz each. This has raised opposition from the mobile network operators. Proximus, Orange and the GSMA made the position clear in response to the consultation on extending BBB's licence. 

Operator opposition

Proximus suggested that it would be better to reject the application for a licence extension. Then the spectrum would be free from the second half of 2019 for 5G operators. It sees a need for licences with 100 MHz of contiguous spectrum, available in a timely fashion nationwide, in order to realise the capacity of 5G. Proximus also claims that BBB has low spectral efficiency in how it's using the frequencies, and the capacity conditions for the company's licence are still based on the situation in 2004. 

Orange adds its own calculation that shows BBB must develop only a small number of sites in order to meet the requirement for a minimum 10 Gbps. With 4x4 MIMO in the downlink and four sectors per site, the operator could suffice with just 12 sites, Orange claims. (This does not take into account the requirement for a minimum 76 Mbps per municipality.) 

The GSM Association's response also notes that the 400 MHz in the 3.4-3.8 GHz range is not uniform, as the BIPT claims. Equipment is much more standardised for the lower spectrum, meaning it can be deployed much sooner. 

The higher range is part of the C-band for satellite communications, from 3.6 GHz to 4.2 GHz. Both civil and military actors are operating there, and most of them see little alternative to the spectrum they're using now. 

The Belgian public authorities appear split on the issue. They are welcoming Broadband Belgium as a greenfield operator that could provide more competition on the Belgian market and ensure the country is an early pioneer with 5G. While the company only has plans for TD-LTE, it's being praised as a 5G operator. 

The three existing mobile operators want to push ahead with 5G, on the basis of their LTE networks, and spectrum is essential for that. BBB is standing in the way of that ambition. It's not likely that the big operators will let the issue drop - the decision to extend Broadband Belgium's licence may still be appealed. 

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