Spectrum A to Z

Computerworld's guide to the upcoming auction of rights to the 700MHz spectrum

Allocation of the 700MHz spectrum band that becomes available in November 2013 following the digital switchover will enable the next evolution in the delivery of mobile broadband.

Band plan selection will be critical, with the Asia Pacific plan (likely to be formalised at a meeting of the World Radiocommunication Conference in Geneva in January 2012) appearing to be the most favoured. This allows for 45MHz paired bands (one for the uplink and one for the downlink) to be divided among the telcos.

China is looking at a different way of allocating spectrum called TDD (Time Division Duplex) or unpaired. This involves a single band allocation and means the uplink and the downlink are on the same frequency, but separated by time (rather than by frequency band).

Devices are a key consideration when selecting the band plan. As New Zealand has a small population base it’s critical we follow the same plan as countries with large populations because manufacturers will not create devices specifically for our market.

Europe currently has no band plan that enables mobile operators to roll out services across the entire 700MHz spectrum – this may create issues for international mobile roaming in the future.

Four (4)G services are the next step change in mobile broadband – faster speeds and greater capacity and the telcos say they need it. Vodafone reports that in June 2010 the amount of data though its network was 60 terabytes and a year later, in June 2011, it was 135 terabytes. Independent analysts show that costs of deploying mobile broadband networks in this band could be $1– 2 billion lower than deployment in higher frequency bands.

Sub 1 GHz spectrum (encompassing the 700MHz, 850MHz and 900MHz bands) is the most cost-effective spectrum for delivering mobile data. Currently Telecom has a 30MHz block of the 880MHz band, Vodafone has 30MHz of the 900MHz band and 2degrees has 19.6MHz of the 900MHz band.

Hautaki Trust, is the commercial arm of Te Huarahi Tika Trust. The Trust was given a shareholding in 2degees in return for a block of spectrum, which it was able to purchase for a discount in recognition of a Treaty of Waitangi claim.

Isolation is, for a change, a real advantage for New Zealand in terms of radio spectrum. There is plenty of spectrum and the country doesn’t have to negotiate with its neighbours as to how it will be allocated.

Steven Joyce, the ICT Minister is currently in talks with Minister of Maori Affairs Pita Sharples over the Treaty of Waitangi claim on the 700MHz spectrum. But any decisions about spectrum allocation will take place after the general election in November.

Kordia, CallPlus, Compass, Woosh and TelstraClear all own the rights to blocks of spectrum in the upper bands. The most significant is TelstraClear’s blocks in the 1800 and 2100 bands. It’s likely these companies – and others – will want a slice of the 700MHz band. It’s possible a small part of the band could be carved off and be allocated using the TDD method (see C for China).

Long Term Evolution is the technology platform that will enable 4G services that could potentially treble the speeds, capacity and reach of mobile networks. These capabilities are particularly beneficial in rural areas that are underserved by both mobile and fixed-line operators.

Ministry of Economic Development is the government agency in charge of spectrum allocation.

Need to ‘use it or lose it’ is a clause that is expected to be part of the rules around spectrum allocation. There is some disquiet that TelstraClear has never used its spectrum to rollout a national mobile network.

Opinion is being sought amongst all industry stakeholders, with submissions to a discussion paper due out this month, and the submissions process expected to close in November.

Police, fire, ambulance, coast guards and maritime safety are also eyeing up the 700MHz spectrum, as they have a business case before government for a dedicated national communications network specifically for emergency services.

A quarter of valuable spectrum auctioned in 2001, which enabled 3G services, was set aside for the Maori interests. Te Huarahi Tika Trust will be hoping the government again looks favourably on iwi interests.

The Radiocommunications Act allows for allocation of spectrum rights for up to 20 years, but the rights to the 700MHz spectrum are likely to be for 18 years. This is so they will expire in 2031, at the same time as rights to other valuable bands become available.

The status quo for allocating spectrum bands is that an auction is held where the highest bidders win, although the amount an individual company can buy is capped.

Two (2)degrees says the cap as to how much of the 700MHz band an individual telco can own should be 20MHz block (paired) which could mean only two telcos would get enough spectrum to roll out LTE services in this band. It says that rather than be auctioned to the highest bidder, the band should be allocated in a way that ensures a competitive mobile market.

USA’s 700MHz band plan is a hodge podge of paired and unpaired spectrum allocation, with just two telcos able to get a substantial amount of paired spectrum. A large chunk has been set aside for the emergency services. This will put the US at odds with the Asia Pacific band plan, but its size will mean that device manufacturers will cater to the US market.

Vodafone NZ says spectrum should go to the highest bidder. It agrees with 2degrees that the cap should be set at a maximum of 20MHz (paired).

A windfall for the government coffers may have short-term benefits, but there is an argument telcos that pay high prices for spectrum may find there is no money left to actually build the infrastructure.

XT network owner Telecom appears relaxed about spectrum allocation. But it says as a general principle it should be divided up in a way that delivers the most benefits to customers – which it claims is larger, rather than smaller blocks.

Yield from the auction process is expected to be hundreds of millions of dollars.

Zero is what TUANZ says the spectrum should go for. The user organisation is suggesting the blocks be given free to those telcos who promise to roll out LTE services in rural areas first. It argues that under the Rural Broadband Initiative rural customers will get remarkably slower speeds than those in urban centres under the Ultra Fast Broadband initiative, and the 700MHz auction is an opportunity to address this imbalance.

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