Blog: Can Europe deliver a coordinated approach to vertical connectivity?

Can Europe, where opinion is notoriously split, and cultural practices are even more diverse ever agree to spectrum harmonisation? These questions were raised at the recent EU Spectrum management conference (www.spectrummanagement.eu), where agreement between mobile network operators and industry support for vertical connectivity appeared to be a bigger issue than any cultural differences.

The event kicked off with the unrolling of the European Commission’s initiative the Digital Compass. This program sets out Europe’s digital ambitions for the next decade, by providing clear targets and initiatives on how to achieve them. Introduced by the EC, it incorporates radio spectrum alongside a host of other sector objectives and has yet to receive support or feedback from the Radio Spectrum Policy Group (RSPG). Nevertheless, expectations are high, particularly given its focus on supporting the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and initiatives such as climate change and creating a human-centred, sustainable and more prosperous approach to people and businesses.

But back to our industry news. The event asked whether Europe can deliver a coordinated approach for vertical connectivity and how this could be achieved. Recent initiatives across the union have shown different approaches to supporting private mobile networks, which has led to many questioning whether countries should be applying a unified approach to spectrum allocation or whether lessons learned will come too late as nations have already committed to their roadmap.

Private network operators provide access to 5G networks for specific industry uses. Whether that is agriculture, eHealth, utilities, public safety, media and smart cities, all face the same issue – identifying enough spectrum to meet the growing demand for data to support their businesses. Private network operators have two routes open to them:

  • Own their licensed network and access shared or unlicensed spectrum;
  • Use a commercial MNO to lease or procure an end-to-end solution for network access.

And this is where the real differences came to the fore. MNOs, quite rightly, want to protect their investment in license and infrastructure costs, whereas verticals are looking for a lighter touch to spectrum access allowing them to build and manage their networks.

A diverse number of approaches was demonstrated with countries advancing their plans at speed. For example:

UK: 2.25GHz bandwidth for local shared access licences in the lower 26GHz band, plus 3.8-4.2GHz band;

Sweden: 80MHz of the spectrum at the 3.5GHz has been set aside, with an additional 850MHz expected in the 26GHz band;

France: 5MHz in the 2.6GHz TDD band;

Finland: 850MHZ of spectrum in the 26GHz band set aside;

Denmark: 400 MHz of spectrum at the 26GHz plus leasing obligation for 60MHz at the 3.5GHz;

And lastly, Germany who has allocated 3.25GHz of the locally licensed spectrum at 26GHz and 100 MHz set aside in the 3.5GGHz band.

These different approaches to spectrum allocations show a distinct lack of harmonisation which worries many in the industry. This was reinforced by Deutsche Telecom, who said that more consideration needs to be given to the implications of these practices and the operational challenges private network operators will face such, as cross-border co-existence. Added to that, they claim that the lack of harmonisation could limit the success and uptake of 5G across the Union, as opportunity costs were not considered. This, claims DT, could disadvantage Europe’s advances in rolling out 5G networks compared to the rest of the World.

Others disagreed with this approach, claiming verticals should have free choice and should not be reliant on commercial operators for services. They say that if sufficient enough spectrum is made available through national initiatives, everyone could access spectrum.

So what effect will this diverse approach have on future uses? Germany, which has allocated two bands for this use, has made spectrum available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Their approach features:

3.7GHz band
This is the first band to be allocated for broadband solely for the use of verticals. 100 MHz was allocated in 2019, with an increasing interest from campus networks and industries such as transport, logistics, manufacturing and R&D.

26GHz band
This band has no severe restrictions and is available to MNOs, verticals and regional operators, who define the area they require. The whole band has been allocated for this purpose with the potential to move existing fixed link users over the next 5 years, so releasing more spectrum. Released earlier this year, there have only been 5 assignments to date with many raising public concerns about the impact on EMF.

So have Germany taken the right approach. Many suggest that the 26GHz band provides the best use case for high-capacity harmonisation. This higher band spectrum notoriously features lower license costs, less interference than the mid-bands and shorter propagation distances that suit private or regional networks.

So what can we expect moving forward? One thing for sure, more discussions on best practices for managing vertical connectivity are needed. But until a Union-wide approach is adopted, this could lead to a fragmented continent that may not provide the best platform to develop and grow both 5G networks and the businesses reliant on them.

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From August, our Newsletter will feature a regular column called Spectrum Focus. This spectrum management based feature will provide regular updates and opinions from the industry. Watch this space!

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