In India, the telecommunication spectrum is a fertile band of unending frequency of disputes and controversies, even warranting, at times, the intervention of the Supreme Court.
Whether it was the stunning cancellation by the Supreme Court of several mobile licences on account of spectrum aspects or whether the earlier GSM-CDMA dispute or the Dewas S-band spectrum controversy, this country tends to generate needless issues and debates in matters that are handled far more objectively and amicably in other regimes.
Currently, hot debates are raging around what is called the C-band spectrum (radio frequencies within bands 4 GHz and 8 GHz) and the warring camps involved are the incumbent satellite and broadcasting operators, pitted against the new and upcoming 5G technology operators.
One portion of the band—from 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz—has traditionally been, and is still being, utilised by broadcasters and multi-system operators (MSOs) for providing cable and satellite (C&S) services for over two decades in conformance with the government’s spectrum allocation policy, the National Frequency Allocation Plan 2018 (NFAP)—which itself is aligned to the global body, the International Telecommunication Union’s Radio Regulations.
Part of the C-band, especially from 3.3 GHz to 3.6 GHz, is globally the coveted ‘mid-band spectrum’, earmarked by the NFAP for allocation to 5G operators. This band is extremely important for the new 5G technology. According to the global apex body for mobile operators, the GSMA, the spectrum band represents “a balancing point between coverage and capacity that provides the perfect environment for the earliest 5G connectivity.”
Strictly speaking, there need be no difficulty in the above situation and a ‘peaceful coexistence’ is surely possible and both technologies could flourish and grow healthily. This is because there is a separation or ‘guard-band’ of 100 MHz between the two technologies to preclude the possibilities of any interference. Needless to say, any interference between frequencies of different technologies would directly harm the quality of service to customers of satellite/broadcasting as well as telecom services, and lead to an unacceptable situation.
It is an indisputable fact that India needs to expeditiously roll out good quality 5G networks for customer benefits as well as for accelerating our overall economic development in the multiple verticals of healthcare, manufacturing, industry 4.0, transportation and logistics, and so on. Hence, the availability of adequate mid-band-spectrum is a very critical need for the nation.
Experts the world over generally agree that to provide effective 5G services, one must have 80-100 MHz per operator. Generally speaking, the more the spectrum, the better the quality of service in terms of speed, reliability, etc. In India, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had also recently stated (as per media reports) that an operator should have at least 80 MHz each in the mid-band.
Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, with climates similar to India’s, offer interesting cases of allocation.
Hong Kong has assigned 300 MHz (3.3 GHz to 3.6 GHz) for 5G. China is similar, albeit 3.3 GHz to 3.4 GHz is earmarked for shared use. In Singapore, 225 MHz is allocated (3425 MHz to 3650 MHz) and only two 5G licences awarded—one to Singtel and the other to a joint venture of its MNO rivals. Each has been given 100 MHz in 3.5 GHz. Additionally, Singapore’s regulator has advised the 5G and the satellite operators to use appropriate band pass filters (BPF) to cater to the reduced guard band of 50 MHz between the two services. In Malaysia, only a single entity, which is a consortium of multiple licences, is being awarded 100 MHz of 3.5 GHz.
Clearly, consideration of all the above cases does (sources: GSMA and GSA) not provide a solution since there are as many countries providing 300 MHz or less as the number of countries that provide 400 MHz or more.
The case of the US is of special interest. There, after discussion, dialogue and incentives, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) persuaded several incumbent satellite operators to vacate their C-band spectrum for a huge compensation of nearly $10 billion. Even with this, some operators have not agreed and there is a likelihood of litigation arising to assert incumbent contractual rights.
It must be appreciated that the C&S sector is important for the nation’s communication and entertainment services reaching 207 million TV households in both rural and urban areas. The sector consists of 911 registered TV channels, which are all transmitted through C-band satellites and simultaneously received by 1,701 registered distribution platform operators (DPOs) spread all over India. The sector provides direct and indirect employment to nearly 2 million people. The per capita media consumption through TV grew at the rate of 6.7% CAGR from 2018 to 2020, to reach about 4.2 hours per day. Such an important economic sector should not be disrupted. The importance of the C-band for an all-weather transmission requirement in a tropical environment like India is much more than in non-tropical environments like the US, Europe or the Middle East.
According to the NFAP 2018, C-band frequencies from 3.3 GHz to 3.6 GHz (i.e. 300 MHz) are earmarked for 5G. Obviously, this could be inadequate for the four mobile operators in India, and there are rumours that the 100 MHz guard band between 3.6 GHz and 3.7 GHz is being considered for giving to 5G. By doing so, obviously, each mobile operator would be able to get 100 MHz in mid-band spectrum, which is a good quantum for providing high-quality services.
However, the above move has caused much consternation and alarm in the C&S sector as they are concerned that the inevitable out-of-band emission (OBE) would interfere with their satellite band of 3.7 GHZ to 4.2 GHz, since 5G signals would be far more powerful and all-pervasive as compared to satellite signals. They maintain that a separation of 100 MHz is essential between 5G services and satellite services in order to ensure continuous satisfactory signals in the 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz bands. They cite the example of the Hong Kong regulator (the Office of the Communications Authority) whose studies established this requirement.
While the C&S and 5G camps have a completely opposite position in this matter, there is a moderate camp that suggests the government could work on 80 MHz per 5G operator like advised by many authorities, and by doing so there would be a need to only take up 20 MHz out of 100 MHz guard band and this might represent an acceptable quality situation with respect to interference between the two technologies. However, the satellite sector vehemently opposes even this as causing harmful interference as shown by some studies.
Each camp has its own well-founded justification. In the end, a sustainable policy resolution would have to be based on the correct balancing of aspects of equity and respect for rights of existing players with the need for progress through adoption of new technologies. There need not, and should not, be any disruptions or disturbance of existing legal occupants and their customers. Peaceful coexistence of all is the goal, and taking the cue from the US FCC, there could be healthy discussions to determine an acceptable way forward through provision of suitable incentives. The government could well declare, like Marlon Brando in The Godfather: “I’m going to make them an offer they can’t refuse!”
(Research inputs by Debashish Bhattacharya.)
The author is honorary fellow of the IET (London) and founder & CEO of Advisory@TVR. Views are personal