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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.


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