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The spectrum cost challenge to 5G

Success of 5G relies heavily on affordable spectrum

Telecom operators are in the midst of an expensive network upgrade to support 5G mobile communications. Buying the spectrum — the radio frequencies reserved for use by the telecommunications industry — to support mobile service has proven costly over the last decade. With 5G’s arrival, spectrum costs threaten to overwhelm telcos already struggling with high core capital expenditures (capex) and a flat revenue outlook. Many spectrum auctions over the last year have delivered surprisingly high prices to telco buyers.

If telcos aspire to make money off 5G, now is the time to push for cheaper spectrum. Telcos need to lobby government bodies on auction terms; refarm, or repurpose older frequency bands so that they can be used for 5G; scour for available spectrum on the private market; and consider company acquisitions if the holdings are a match. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis will delay 5G deployments by at least three to six months, which creates some breathing room in which to address these issues.

Telcos also need to carefully study the technical means of delivering increased spectrum efficiency in the network. That includes, for instance, dynamic spectrum sharing, which Ericsson points to as a “key part of mobile service providers’ 5G strategy.” Relatedly, as MTN Consulting has argued elsewhere, telcos should consider ramping up their R&D budgets in order to independently assess the adoption of open radio access network/open networking solutions in the 5G network.

There are a number of common spectrum-related challenges facing operators across markets. That is verified by short case studies of 5G rollouts in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, and Indonesia. For countries to see successful, affordable 5G deployments from multiple operators, policymakers need to do the following: shut down 2G and 3G networks to improve spectral efficiency; develop national spectrum roadmaps; facilitate low-cost device options; encourage development of new vertical markets in the Internet of Things; ensure operators can refarm unused spectrum; and address interference.
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The spectrum cost challenge to 5G
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Matt Walker
Chief Analyst