Is Three correct to claim it will be the only true 5G provider?

In the 5G marketing wars, does Three's spectrum claim hold water?

In mid-June, UK operator Three announced it would launch its 5G network in August. Amongst the claims it made was one that stood out: Three would be the only operator providing “true” 5G because it is the only operator with 100MHz of 5G spectrum.

Here’s the sentence in question from its own press release: “Importantly, Three is the only operator who can offer a ‘true’ 5G experience which requires 100MHz of 5G spectrum, as set out by the ITU, the global standards body on 5G technology.”

That claim had a few people scrambling to ascertain its validity. Is it true that you must have 100MHz spectrum to qualify as providing true 5G? For comparison, Vodafone has 50MHz of mid-band 5G spectrum (although it is only utilising 40MHz of it at launch), and EE and O2 have 40MHz each. Three has so much because as well as the block it got in the 3.4 GHz band auction, it already owned a large amount from an earlier purchase of former FWA provider UK Broadband.

Well, Three’s statement appeared to have as its basis the below paragraph from an ITU document – “Minimum requirements related to technical performance for IMT-2020 radio interface”. (IMT-2020 is effectively the globally agreed set of requirements as to what constitutes 5G.)

So, here are the relevant words from the ITU doc:

4.13 Bandwidth
“Bandwidth is the maximum aggregated system bandwidth. The bandwidth may be supported by single or multiple radio frequency (RF) carriers. The bandwidth capability of the RIT/SRIT (Radio Interface Technology/Set of Radio Interface Technologies) is defined for the purpose of IMT-2020 evaluation.

“The requirement for bandwidth is at least 100 MHz.”

Now, following some rejigging of its spectrum after Ofcom’s 3.4 GHz auction, Three has a 100MHz contiguous block of spectrum within its midband holdings – and that’s not something the other operators have. So it is different.

But, and here’s the question, do the ITU requirements necessitate that the system bandwidth of 100MHz is contiguous. Perhaps not. The document says that bandwidth is the “maximum aggregated system bandwidth” and that it “may be supported by single or multiple radio frequency (RF) carriers.”

Why is this relevant? Well, because operators deploying Dual Connectivity can connect devices simultaneously to 5G NR and LTE base stations, and that means that the amount of spectrum available to a device can add up to 100MHz, even if not all 100MHz of it is from the 5G NR radio.

In EE’s case, for example, it can boost its 40MHz midband 5G NR spectrum with 45MHz (paired) 1800 LTE spectrum plus its 15MHz LTE 2.1GHz spectrum, say, to get to 100MHz aggregated frequency bandwidth.

So – does “true” 5G require 100MHz contiguous “5G” spectrum – or does any aggregated system bandwidth count towards the 100MHz requirement?

I asked the ITU, and this is what I heard back (italics are my addition).

Per the ITU: “The requirement states ‘The bandwidth may be supported by single or multiple radio frequency (RF) carriers.’  Therefore multiple carriers may make the 100 MHz requirement. There is no requirement as to where or what makes up the 100 MHz, so long as the carrier can meet the other minimum requirements. If the carrier has a combination of NR and LTE elements that would be ok as long as the other minimum requirements (throughput, latency, etc.) are also met.

That seems pretty clear cut from a bandwidth point of view. Three is different from its competitors, it is the only one with 5G NR operating across a clear 100MHz spectrum bandwidth, but it is on sticky ground to claim that this fact makes it the only provider of “true” 5G.

What do you think?