Here’s how Ofcom and the Government could help 5G in the UK

Easier fibre access, shared backhaul, neutral host models, lower site rental costs and a national standard for street level small cells.

The IET says that it will not be possible to achieve the key and most challenging 5G goal of much higher quality coverage – where available coverage and capacity are matched to user demand – within the current regulatory and planning approvals environment.

In a document called  “5G Networks for Policy Makers” – the body puts together a series of recommendations that it says will enable a sustainable environment to enable investment in 5G networks in the UK. Without these changes, ambitious targets for 5G will be hard to meet.

“There will be a huge investment gap between the coverage deliverable by the market with today [sic] ways of doing things and the 5G quality of coverage needed to transform the economy,” the report authors say.

The IET’s  top recommendation is for Ofcom and Government to change regulatory policies to allow for greater freedom in the planning and sharing of networks. The paper says that greater network sharing, neutral host ownership and the open sharing of private small cells would all greatly help investment cases in 5G networks.

There must also be much easier access to fibre – perhaps on a shared model – and a site lease model that moves from a small number of high cost sites to high numbers of low costs sites.

It also asks for the development of a national standard for the design of street level cell sites, so that networks can achieve a single approval for site designs, rather than submitting applications on a case by case basis.

The paper said the Government’s chief focus as it looks to foster an environment that would enable 5G network rollouts should be on “coverage maximisation”.  

It said, “The greatest network infrastructure challenge of the 5G era will be “coverage”. However, this challenge is not simply about “getting a signal for a voice call anymore but getting the necessary “Quality of Coverage” for a thriving digital economy and Gb/s digital society.”

It added, “If Ofcom can anticipate the new coverage issues that will come with 5G, it can get in place the measures at the outset to steadily remedy them along the way.”

Policy recommendations included:

Taking a wider view of the competitive landscape, as fixed/mobile and WiFi boundaries merge
Enabling greater sharing of passive infrastructure, such as ducts, and including all public utility owners in discussions
Encouraging active sharing for fibre backhaul
Getting a balance between landowner and network developer rights
A single approval for street site designs, rather than consent being gained on a case by case basis
5G test beds that trial cells in street furniture to develop national standards

Spectrum

The paper also says that band fragmentation in the range 3.4-3.8 GHz needs to be cleaned up as a matter of priority. “Wide RF channels (80- 100 MHz) are essential to drive 5G in this pioneer band” – and in some areas, such as Scotland, the whole 400MHz in the band could be turned over to 5G.

Coverage from small cells in this band could also be aggregated, and “Ofcom should look favourably on voluntary commercial agreements that facilitate the most comprehensive aggregation of coverage areas of different entities (public and private).”

The 26GHz band should be treated as a local resource, rather than having any national coverage obligations imposed within it.

Finally, coverage obligations at 700MHz need to be thought through very carefully. First – what exactly is the coverage obligation when we are talking about data access. Second, given the likely costs involved, operators that take on the 700MHz band with its coverage obligation may be able to offset increased mast costs against spectrum fees.

You can read the whole paper here.

The paper was written by Professor Will Stewart, a visiting Professor at UCL and at the ORC at Southampton, and by Stephen Temple,  recently a member of the UK Government’s Steering Group for the Digital Britain Project.

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