Satellite stations in Burum throw shadow over 4G and 5G development

Monday 21 November 2016 | 16:17 CET | Background

The gigabit speeds promised in the next generation of 4G networks require more spectrum. The mobile industry is developing carrier aggregation in order to bundle more bands of spectrum and increase capacity, and tests using spectrum over 3.4 GHz have already achieved speeds of more than 1.2 Gbps. However, this version of 4G cannot be used in the Netherlands, due to the intelligence services AIBD and MIVD monitoring satellite communications in the band. To protect these activities, the Dutch government has blocked use of the 3,400-3,800 MHz range. This complicates the further evolution of mobile internet and is also throwing a shadow over 5G developments. 

LTE in 3400-3800 MHz

Testing of 4.5G, also called LTE-Advanced Pro, is well underway in the mobile sector and is seen as the next step to raising 4G speeds. The technology combines existing 4G services with TDD spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band or higher. This includes LTE Band 42 (3,400-3,600 MHz) and Band 43 (3,600-3,800 MHz) for TDD applications.

Deutsche Telekom and Huawei already topped 1 Gbps with a data transmission test over a LTE network using this spectrum. In mid-September, the live demonstration in Berlin showed a download speed of 1.22 Gbps. 

The test used 10 MHz in the 800 MHz band and 20 MHz each in the 1,800 and 2,600 MHz bands. In addition, the network used 2x20 MHz of TDD spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band. Prototype equipment was used for the indoor tests, while the outdoor test used a marco base station for the licensed spectrum and small cells for the 3.5 GHz frequencies. 

Ericsson is also developing its base stations to add support for the sub-6 GHz frequencies. This includes both the 5 GHz and 3.5 GHz bands. Nokia's development work includes a specific focus on Band 42 and Band 43 for TDD applications and CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service), which is the name used in the US to develop shared use of the 3.5 GHz band.   

The Nokia AirScale radio portfolio is already ten times as fast as the first LTE networks and offers gigabit peak speeds with an evolution of carrier aggregation of five spectrum bands. Chipset and modem manufacturers like Qualcomm are following the same roadmap.

Intelligence services in Burum

In the Netherlands, the industry developments are affected by a unique factor: a satellite ground station in the north of the country, in Burum, Friesland. This is an important site for the intelligence services AIVD and MIVD for signal intelligence (SIGINT). Receivers target important communication satellites in order to intercept traffic. The commercial satellite company Inmarsat also has a teleport there, and the American army operates communication systems at the site. 

To protect these activities, the government imposed limits on the use of radio spectrum. These were implemented in May 2011 as part of the National Spectrum Plan and draw a line across the north of the country, from the sea to the German border. Above this line, use of Bands 42 and 43 is forbidden. Any antennas below this line that could reach Burum must be set 15 dB weaker. 

These limitations make the roll-out of 4.5G Pro impossible not only in the capital Amsterdam but across the country. Even without Amsterdam, there would be little commercial interest in the technology. 

The spectrum limits are valid for five years, and the government has not shown any sign of changing the policy. No licences have been issued for the spectrum. In 2014, the limitations on the use of the 3,600-3,800 MHz band were relaxed, but this has not led to any applications for the frequencies. 

WiMAX forbidden in 2010

The European Commission designated the 3,600-3,800 MHz band suitable for mobile services in 2008. After that the provider Worldmax constructed a small Wimax network in Amsterdam under the name Aerea. However in March 2010, the state blocked Worldmax's licence, citing national security concerns, and the company was forced to halt its activities immediately.  

In 2010, after Worldmax was blocked, the government asked the research institute TNO to investigate whether there was any commercial demand for the 3.5 GHz band. TNO found there wasn't, at least not for the next 5-7 years. 

Interest growing, but ban still in place

The government has since checked several times the level of interest for the 3.5 GHz band. In 2011, 2012 and 2014, there was little interest, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs. However, in 2012 mobile operators said they would like to use this spectrum for backhaul connections, indoor coverage and capacity improvements on their existing networks, using micro and picocells. 

In 2014, demand for mobile applications was stronger. However, the security services and commercial parties like Inmarsat stressed the importance of their activities in Burum. As a result, the government decided not to allow mobile applications in the band.

The Dutch government has met EU requirements to include mobile services in the band in its spectrum plan, but at the same time has relied on security reasons to pre-empt any commercial licences. As a result, 4.5G Pro has little future in the Netherlands in the near term. While parliament has taken up a new Law on the Intelligence and Security services, the accompanying text shows that the government does not plan to change the status quo in Burum.

5G questions

The further development of 4G is a pre-condition to 5G for the industry. While the technology is not yet fixed, vendors and mobile operators are looking several years into the future in order to plan their investments and start preparations. Offering gigabit speeds over 4G will also help stimulate demand for the future services possible over 5G. 

The problems surrounding 4.5G could mean 5G comes later or not at all to the Netherlands, as the business case for such investments is severely weakened. It remains difficult to say how much of an impact the lack of spectrum in the 3.4-3.8 GHz band will have on technical developments. One thing is certain though: 5G will require much more spectrum, and much of the focus is on using high bands.  

The European Commission has named spectrum over 6 GHz as important for 5G development, as part of its 5G Action Plan. The Dutch government has opposed this plan, saying it is too early to be fixing which frequencies will be used or the qualities of 5G. However, one of its arguments is somewhat idosyncratic: the Dutch government still sees plenty of potential in 4G. 

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