Is new 5G spectrum the way to 5G success, or an excuse to trail?

Written by on February 14, 2017 in Opinion with 0 Comments

ITEM: Hong Kong incumbent telco HKT is very angry with the Hong Kong government because it is desperately worried that Hong Kong is going to be left behind in the global 5G race unless it gets new 5G spectrum ASAP.

HKT’s angst is understandable – especially here in the early months of 2017, with Mobile World Congress 2017 mere weeks away. MWC has always been a catalyst for industry hype, and the past couple of months has seen a blitz of 5G-related announcements, whether they’re actual 5G tests and demos or “pre-5G” gear.

The 3GPP has even released its official 5G logo that hardware vendors can slap on their boxes and devices. If that doesn’t signify that 5G is everything it’s hyped up to be, I’d like to know what does.

So no wonder HKT is dithering over being left behind the rest of the world. Hong Kong has a reputation for being ahead of the curve in terms of the latest comms technology – so why shouldn’t it be leading in 5G development as well?

HKT has been publicly bombarding the Hong Kong government with policy papers for several months now, arguing for more new spectrum to be released at reasonable prices, and ideally under a spectrum trading regime. Its latest paper [PDF], released last week, walks the government through just what “true 5G” is, and why HKT needs more spectrum for it:

… true 5G supports a broad array of new, high speed, innovative services and applications such as machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity including smart meters and water leakage detectors, autonomous driving, cooperative robotics, 360° video remote surveillance, augmented reality, virtual reality and tactile Internet. True 5G will be the basic infrastructure of smart cities and the digital economy and, in short, of the future.

You get the idea.

And because this is an election year for Hong Kong, HKT is even going so far as lobbying the candidates running for the top spot of Chief Executive to explain to them the importance of 5G, etc and so on. The telco has even issued a press release promoting a policy paper from UK regulator Ofcom – which has similar views about 5G spectrum – to prove that it’s right and OFCA is wrong.

Amusingly – and yet tellingly – OFCA said last week it can’t possibly release spectrum for 5G because there’s no standard for it yet, reports the South China Morning Post.

Technically, OFCA has a point – at least as far as the radio aspect of 5G is concerned. For all the hype over 5G and the various demos being staged, the 3GPP’s 5G New Radio standard isn’t slated to be finalized until around the end of 2018, which really means 2019 – which also happens to be the same year that WRC-19 will meet to discuss and (hopefully) allocate harmonized spectrum bands for 5G usage.

That may not be a good excuse for withholding spectrum. By the same token, however, lack of spectrum isn’t a good excuse for cellcos like HKT to not move ahead on 5G, because there’s more to 5G than NR and mmWave bands. What’s behind the NR (IMS, cloud, SDN/NFV, mobile edge computing, etc) matters just as much. Meanwhile, technologies like massive MIMO, 256QAM and carrier aggregation will play a major role in boosting radio capacity on both licensed and unlicensed spectrum bands – and that is being done now on existing LTE-A networks and spectrum. Indeed, LTE-A will be at the core of 5G. Put another way, if you already have an LTE-A network, you’re pretty much halfway down the road to 5G already.

That’s not to say cellcos don’t need more spectrum to offer 5G-level services. They do, and HKT’s impatience is understandable, especially given the dismaying lack of technology vision displayed by the HK government compared to (oh, say) Singapore.

But it’s misleading to argue that Hong Kong will be stuck in 4G limbo until OFCA coughs up some more spectrum before 2019, because spectrum is only one piece of a very complex 5G puzzle. Yes, things like radio planning and cell backhaul are more complicated in a 5G environment – but not to the point where you need to wait for the regulator to allocate spectrum to get started down the 5G path.

Indeed, no one else is. All of the big 5G announcements we’ve seen to date are pre-standard, and many are using spectrum that hasn’t been cleared by WRC for 5G usage yet. Just yesterday, Nokia made a lot of noise about the world’s first 5GTF connection – which is based on a draft standard from Verizon. Even HKT rival SmarTone isn’t waiting on OFCA to get going on 5G – last month it staged a 5G demo with Ericsson and announced a five-year partnership to develop an innovation hub to drive innovation for 4.5G/5G use cases and vertical applications. And frankly, many futuristic apps that will be dependent on 5G are going to take time to gain traction after the initial network launches in 2020.

Given all that – and the fact that HKT owns one of the most technologically advanced cellular networks on earth – it’s plea for “true 5G” seems like just another lever to try and pry more spectrum out of the government. Which is fair enough, but the danger of Hong Kong being caught on the wrong end of the 5G digital divide seems greatly exaggerated at this stage.

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John C. Tanner

About the Author

About the Author: John is editor of Disruptive.Asia and was previously managing editor at Telecom Asia. He has been covering the Asia-Pacific telecoms industry since 1996. He has two degrees in telecommunications and has worked for six years in the US radio industry in various technical and advisory capacities, covering radio and satellite equipment maintenance, studio networking, news writing and production, the latter of which earned him several regional and national awards. .

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