Intelligence Brief: Discussion around 6GHz heats up at MWC Barcelona 2022

It’s barely been a month since I posted [1] about the recent GSMA Intelligence cost-benefit analysis of policy options in the 6GHz band.

I hadn’t expected to write anything on it again so quickly, until I had the pleasure of speaking at the 6GHz 5G/IMT spectrum forum at MWC Barcelona on 1 March. With almost 100 on-site attendees and 250 participating online from across 80 countries, there was clearly a lot of interest, especially from governments and policymakers. Perhaps more important, the fact that it was co-hosted by a number of vendors as well as operators (alongside GSMA Intelligence) signals how important the topic is.

The event started with presentations from Luiz Felippe Zoghbi, senior spectrum policy manager at GSMA, and myself.

Zoghbi presented findings from studies that highlighted the average need for a total of 2GHz of mid-band spectrum in dense urban areas, along with a recent GSMA Intelligence report [2] that quantified the socio-economic benefits of assigning sufficient mid-band spectrum. I then presented the findings from our recent 6GHz report [3].

Views from policymakers
This intro was followed by some excellent insights from a range of policymakers. The importance of identifying new spectrum bands was emphasised by all. For example Tariq Al Awadhi, spectrum expert with the UAE’s Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority (TDRA), described UAE’s strategy for 5G, which is expected to be the dominant mobile access technology by 2027, and emphasised the need for new frequency bands.

Heidi Himmanen from the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency (Traficom) stated it supported the upper 6GHz band for IMT because it can play an important role for the future of 5G and even the introduction of 6G.

Daniel Obam from Kenya’s National Communications Secretariat noted the 6GHz band was seen as an important to compensate for the lack of other mid-band spectrum in many African countries

Of course, a key ongoing issue remains the protection of incumbent services in 6GHz, specifically fixed satellite services and fixed services including mobile backhaul.

Eric Fournier of the Agence Nationale des Frequences (ANFR) in France, discussed the ongoing sharing studies regarding protection of incumbent services at 6GHz in preparation for WRC-23. He highlighted the protection of fixed-satellite service (FSS) uplink as the key international issue, with the caveat that the upper 6GHz is not expected to be used much for satellite uplink in Europe, as the paired downlink bands are not available anymore.

All of the panellists mentioned the importance of allowing the technical studies to conclude for WRC-23. Olfa Jammeli of Agence Nationale des frequences Tunisie, noted all new applications for 6GHz microwave links in Tunisia have been postponed until after WRC-23, as they await the sharing studies to assess the possibility of allocating upper 6GHz to IMT.

Views from industry
The event also saw contributions from industry players, including three operators with a large base of fixed and mobile customers.

Vodafone Group executive Santiago Tenorio, and Roberto Rodriguez Dorrego from Telefonica both said it was important to keep a balanced approach in the 6GHz band, given the required network densification to deliver 5G would not be viable without any 6GHz spectrum. This is especially the case in countries with limited fixed broadband penetration and which rely heavily on mobile connectivity. Meanwhile, in markets with widespread fixed infrastructure and which are seeing increasing fibre-to-the-home, the operators said allocating the lower 6GHz band for unlicensed use (primarily Wi-Fi) is enough to ensure high quality home services.

Deutsche Telekom expert Jan Hendrik Jochum also noted ambitious political goals from the European Commission targeting all populated areas to be covered by 5G by 2030 could only be met with spectrum in the 6GHz band. He explained without upper 6GHz spectrum, mobile operators will not be able to provide the required 5G outdoor capacity, which would risk Europe’s digitalisation falling behind other regions, particularly the US and China.

Further comments were provided by 5G equipment vendors. Nokia standards head Ulrich Dropmann stated the importance of the 6GHz band to fuel the “5G Advanced World” in the second half of the decade when the 5G vision will be completed, while Ericsson director Erika Tejedor elaborated on the IMT’s ability to share spectrum with services which are in the 6GHz band.

Huawei wireless network executive Xu Weizhong offered some interesting experience from China, where field tests carried out in the 6GHz band showed it can provide the same outdoor coverage as 3.5GHz along with a 15 per cent throughput gain when using 128 TRX Massive MIMO.

Lastly, MediaTek standards expert Tim Frost highlighted the importance of using 6GHz for both licensed and unlicensed service, noting it was technically feasible to support this in the same device.

The road to WRC-23
In 2020, some of us [4] asked whether the early decisions on the 6GHz band may have been rushed. At the time, given the potential long timescale of using the band for 5G and the opportunity for it to be used quickly for Wi-Fi 6E, it may have been attractive to allocate the band for unlicensed use.

However, the number of 5G connections is expected to reach 1 billion this year, while the amount of data traffic carried over mobile networks will almost double compared with 2020.

When taking a ten-year view, there is a serious risk mobile networks may not be able to sustain the performance requirements expected from 5G without more mid-band spectrum. Meanwhile, questions are also being asked as to whether the full 6GHz band is needed to address expected Wi-Fi demand, especially in markets where existing spectrum in the 5GHz band and in the 60GHz band) is under-used.

For policymakers, the critical milestone now is WRC-23 and for the ITU technical studies to conclude so they have a clear understanding on how to ensure the protection of incumbent services, before making an informed decision on the optimal assignment of the 6GHz band.

With WRC taking place in 2023, this no longer seems so far away and, at least based on this event, it sounds like many governments and regulators are waiting until then before they take a considered approach.

– Kalvin Bahia – economist, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.


Intelligence Brief: Connectivity and more unleashed at MWC Barcelona 2022

The period from 28 February to 3 March will be recorded as significant dates in the history of the telecoms and technology industry as the GSMA convened more than 61,000 people from across the industry for MWC Barcelona 2022, marking the return of full-scale physical events and removed any lingering doubts over the continuing appeal of in-person industry gatherings.

Here we bring you the buzz from the event and predict what to expect in 2023.

A more comprehensive analysis of these developments has also been published by GSMA Intelligence here [1], examining nearly 50 announcements across 12 individual topics, all the important stories that took centre stage at MWC Barcelona 2022 and what they mean for the industry.

The Connectivity Unleashed theme of MWC Barcelona 2022 was aptly defined to capture everything happening on the show floor. The announcements in the lead up and during the event were dominated by the broad themes of private, open and standalone networks; cloud; and edge, all sitting under the wider umbrella of 5G connectivity and revenue generating opportunities for enterprises.

Obviously sustainability, energy efficiency and, of course the metaverse were other key topics.

On my first business trip in two years, I was excited to experience everything that was happening on the show floor. Having absorbed as much as possible over four days, here are my key highlights and takeaways.

Private networks comes to the fore
The wide range of announcements ranging from partnerships to commercial products and solutions in the sphere of private networks confirms their role in capitalising on enterprise opportunities and operator interest in them. Standalone (SA) 5G and network slicing should foster the easy deployment of private networks and, in recognition of this fact there were several developments seen on these fronts too.

GSMA Intelligence data shows 24 operators to date have deployed commercial SA 5G networks with a further 16 having announced plans to deploy. Notably, Orange announced vendors for its 5G core networks [2] and on the network slicing front, there were systems exhibiting dynamic inventory management.

Continuing focus on RAN
RAN innovation has historically been a major focus at MWC and this year was no different. The number of new open RAN vendors promoting their products speaks to the supplier diversity promise of the approach.

Of course, another set of RAN vendors (not necessarily promoting open RAN) exists in the ecosystem too. These companies demonstrated the benefits of network automation and energy-efficient systems to drive cost-savings and optimised network performance, often clearly targeting perceived weaknesses with open RAN.

Irrespective of how, the end-goal of all these vendors is the same: to drive network efficiencies, cost savings, increase flexibility and reduce time-to-market. And, one other thing was also in common, emphasising the importance of RAN optimisation (via open RAN Intelligent Controllers, or similar non-open RAN solutions) to drive network efficiencies and performance.

Cloud vendors making inroads
Once again the cloud was firmly in view on the show floor. Adam Selipsky, CEO of AWS, in a keynote presentation used examples from its current partnerships with operators to highlight the myriad possibilities available from moving various business operations and networks to the cloud, from core to RAN, from IT to front-end operations, from storage to compute.

Combined with the possibilities of edge computing, the pairing has the potential to open a new world of opportunities for the use-cases demanding low-latency, high throughputs and flexibility in operations.

On one hand, it is good to have clarity on the myriad possibilities and benefits of moving to cloud. At the same time, however, there is a lack of clarity on the role cloud vendors will play for operators in the mobile ecosystem. The varying business models adopted by cloud vendors, from partnership with operators to launching direct-to-enterprise solutions leaves mobile service providers in a fix as to how they should treat cloud vendors: as partners, competitors or co-opetitors?

Metaverse moves beyond hype
It goes without saying the metaverse was one of the most discussed topics on the show floor.

In the lead up to the MWC Barcelona 2022, there was a widespread hope of gaining some more clarity on what exactly the metaverse means, who will be the main players, what will be the business models and much more besides.

While these questions were not fully answered, one thing was clear: the transition of the metaverse from a hyped term to a new world of possibilities is already well underway, addressing questions (or at least understanding opportunities), such as whether there will be one single metaverse or multiple metaverses, and whether non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and crypto will be the digital currencies of the metaverse and Web 3.0.

The rapidly-growing momentum in the metaverse stands as a signal for industry players to start identifying their roles if they want to capture early-mover advantage.

What drives purchase decisions?
While taking up less space than network infrastructure demos and product pods, there was a significant line-up of device launches in the smartphone and laptop/tablet categories.

Corroborating the results of the GSMA Intelligence consumer survey, where 93 per cent of respondents mentioned battery life as a key feature dictating their purchase decisions, major breakthroughs related to battery performance and fast charging were observed in the announcements.

With phones long having replaced dedicated cameras and tablets for many casual users, innovations were also noticed on these fronts. The increased availability of foldable phones with affordable price points also indicated the start of their journey to mass adoption.

MWC had always been a place to do business, network, and gain an understanding of the latest products and solutions in the market. Combined with keynote presentations and various analyst summits, the result is a unique opportunity to glean insights into the strategic direction of the industry.

But, for all the discussion of connectivity and 5G monetisation, I saw another theme emerge across the presentations, keynotes and speeches from industry leaders.

Beyond specific product and service launches, these CEOs and business leaders highlighted a strategic focus to make the world a better place to live, either by way of ethical leadership or climate change initiatives.

Need for ethical leadership: Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, industry bosses called for ethical leadership and set out the role technology can play for the betterment of everyone.
Play your part to combat climate change: A need for continued focus on climate-change initiatives supporting the decarbonisation and net-zero journey of operators was cited numerous times. Examples and case studies were used to highlight the significant carbon reductions smart connectivity can drive.
Fair return opportunities demand shared investment load: A level playing field was also claimed as the need of the hour to offer fair return on investment opportunities to everyone. Industry leaders called for greater sharing of the investment required to support increased data traffic, the benefits of which are reaped by multiple players across the entire ecosystem, not just operators.

What does this all mean?
The announcements and developments from MWC signal the broader topics of network innovations, cloud, and enterprise opportunities will continue to be the focus areas in 2022, alongside emerging topics like the metaverse.

Progress on 6G beyond the formation of working groups and creation of a roadmap is also expected.

Perhaps more importantly, the mobile ecosystem is expanding like never seen before. The advent of new concepts like the metaverse and emergence of new use-cases with 5G and beyond will only see the ecosystem growing further. Consequently, we should expect to see more players from the widening mobile industry ecosystem present at MWC Barcelona next year.

While all this happens, in the here and now, it is worth cherishing the success of MWC Barcelona 2022 and everything that we learned in just four days.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and don’t forget to check out our wrap-up report [3] as well as the Industry Updates [4] section of GSMA Intelligence which captures the announcements and developments in the lead up to and during the event.

– Radhika Gupta – head of data acquisition, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.


Intelligence Brief: Connecting 5G in Saudi Arabia, from the ground to the skies

MWC Barcelona 2022 saw a large number of events and announcements related to 5G spectrum. Much of these focused on the importance of mid-band and mmWave spectrum, and how operators and the wider ecosystem can maximise the value of spectrum with new network solutions. One event that sparked particular interest was a session hosted by CITC on Saudi Arabia’s roadmap for 5G terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks. Mohammed Alabdulqader, the GM of Spectrum Services at CITC, gave an update on the country’s spectrum roadmap, joined by speakers and panellists from GSMA Intelligence, OneWeb, Nokia, BCG and Intelsat. It concluded with a video of the world’s first trial of 5G HAPS technology.

Saudi Arabia: driving forward with 5G
The session started with a GSMA Intelligence presentation on the current state of 5G, followed by the CITC roadmap. It now goes without saying that assigning sufficient, timely and affordable spectrum is critical to 5G. Like many other countries in the Gulf, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is a 5G pioneer, assigning key mid-band spectrum (2.3GHz, 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz) in 2019. Low-band spectrum (700MHz and 800MHz) was awarded earlier for 4G, but operators can also use it for 5G. As a result, operators in the KSA today have access to more than 1000MHz of licensed spectrum for IMT use in the low- and mid-band ranges. This is on a par, or higher than, most of the leading countries in Europe, Americas and Asia-Pacific. The policy has resulted in direct benefits for consumers: 5G network coverage in the Kingdom exceeded 70 per cent at the end of 2021 and average 5G speeds reached 360Mb/s, amongst the highest worldwide.

CITC has also planned three major spectrum releases for 2022: 600MHz, 700MHz and 3800MHz for IMT; 450MHz for a nationwide business-critical communications network; and 2100MHz for non-terrestrial networks [1] (NTNs). This will make Saudi Arabia the number one country in the world in the amount of IMT spectrum in the sub-6GHz bands and a global pioneer in enabling Non-Terrestrial Networks to enhance connectivity. CITC is also planning to auction the 26GHz band and 1.5GHz in a separate auction.

Public consultations and call for international interest
CITC has also called on the international players to express their views and interest in the open public consultations for the IMT auction [2] and the 450MHz licence [3] awards, which are available for public consultation until 7 April and 24 March, respectively. CITC has expressed its openness to consider new international service providers to participate in awards.

Bringing HAPS back
5G will not just bring faster data speeds, low latencies and massive connectivity. It will also drastically change the architectures of mobile networks, from radio to the core. One way in which this will happen is to combine terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks (NTNs), including air-to-ground networks, high-altitude platforms (HAPS) and low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations. The objective is to provide a genuinely ubiquitous mobile service across the world, including to the 450 million people that do not have any mobile broadband coverage. It will also enable capabilities such as IoT, emergency communications, disaster recovery and terrestrial site backhaul.

NTNs are of course not new. Broadband services enabled by LEO satellites are being deployed by Starlink and OneWeb, among others, while a number of HAPS technologies have been developed during the past decade. However, none of these reached significant scale and many, including high-profile examples such as Facebook Aquila and Google’s Project Loon, were closed down due to lack of commercial sustainability. But combining NTNs with 5G potentially offers a new opportunity and stronger business case than previous deployments. The development of advanced smart antennas, lower cost LEOs and longer-duration HAPs is coming at a time when operators and governments are focused on driving 5G coverage and adoption. During the MWC22 session, the CEO of Stratospheric Platforms presented a video showing a demonstration of 5G HAPS technology. Conducted in February at the Red Sea Project site [4] on Saudi Arabia’s western coast, the tests saw the use of aircraft to extend a 5G service, covering a geographical area of 450 square kilometres.

Enabling regulation is key for 5G NTNs and so is standardisation
With the technology underway, NTN operators are also working on commercial development. The panel discussed several factors that would enable this, with two areas emphasised. One was a supportive policy framework, which is something CITC has sought to deliver with regulatory sandbox projects, open access for network operators and, in August 2022, having the world’s first spectrum auction for NTNs on the 2100MHz band. The other key area was around standardisation, including 3GPP Release-17 and, in the future, Release-18. Release-17 introduces new network topologies into the 3GPP specifications, including HAPS, LEOs and geosynchronous orbit (GEO) satellites. This is important because previous NTNs have suffered from high costs associated with a lack of standardisation.

Getting the economics right
Despite the excitement generated by the possibility of ubiquitous 5G coverage, NTNs are still in the early stages of deployment (although the same is also true of terrestrial 5G in many countries). In the long-term, NTNs will offer significant economic advantages over terrestrial networks in rural and remote locations with low population densities. Indeed, without NTNs it is likely that certain populations will remain uncovered. However, there remain a number of challenges to overcome, including reducing the link budget, terminal costs and form factors. Fortunately, progress is being made on all of these, with the development of intelligent antenna, advances in beamforming and more cost- and power-efficient HAPS and LEO platforms. The entry and growth of new NTN operators could play a particularly important role here and it is notable that the CITC’s planned spectrum awards offer the opportunity for new companies, including international players, to enter the market.

Closing the coverage gap
With 450 million people still out of reach of a 3G/4G signal and governments setting targets for universal coverage and 5G upgrades, operators will need to consider a range of rollout strategies. If this includes NTNs, operators need to ensure they are economically viable and that they can integrate seamlessly into terrestrial networks. This will require involvement of the whole ecosystem, including vendors and systems integrators. Several operators have already started this, for example by partnering with satellite-to-cell providers.

– Kalvin Bahia – economist, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.