This is the first in a series of articles examining developments in spectrum sharing and private LTE and 5G around the world. The series provides an overview of shared spectrum allocations in different markets and explores the burgeoning use case and application ecosystems that are arising from the emergence of private wireless networks.
The successful commercialization of CBRS in the United States has reverberated through the wireless industry in Europe. Governments, regulators and industry alike are keen to see similar shared spectrum initiatives implemented on the continent, compelled by the economic goal of enhancing international competitiveness.
In fact, numerous European countries have already embarked on this journey and reserved access to licensed spectrum for third parties such as industrial manufacturers and logistics operators. The industry is now ripe for change, spurred in part by the wave of spectrum auctions that continue to sweep the continent.
The new European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), which was first adopted in 2018 and transposed into law in Member States more recently, has acted as a key driver of shared spectrum initiatives at policy levels. It calls for the “shared use of radio spectrum and general authorisation where possible, as well as easier spectrum trading and leasing”.
European Wireless Market: At a crossroads as 5G deployments gather pace.
Progressive consolidation and convergence has been the defining feature of the wireless industry across Europe in recent years. Fierce and continued price-based competition in the consumer market means Europeans enjoy access to unlimited data tariffs at some of the lowest prices in the developed world.
It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that the operating environment has been a challenging one for most mobile operators. Revenues are stagnant or declining in many markets, despite record levels of demand placed on network infrastructure during the pandemic. Early ambitions to monetise data usage with 5G amid the decline of text messaging have long since evaporated.
The financial pinch wreaked by this so-called “race to the bottom” is particularly untimely, and it comes at the start of the capital intensive 5G cycle, in which European operators are predominantly deploying mid-band allocations in dense urban environments, having already participated in expensive spectrum auctions.
Indeed, the gravity of the challenges that exist are clearly visible in recent efforts to spin off tower infrastructure to third parties, generating much-needed cash in the process but also relinquishing long-term control over the physical asset itself. Examples include Vodafone Group’s creation of Vantage Towers and CK Hutchinson’s tower portfolio sell off to Cellnex.
The coalescence of these market conditions, in addition to many others, highlights the real economic and social need to diversify the wireless industry beyond the control of traditional mobile operators alone and to implement a step-change in spectrum policy through sharing initiatives.
European governments and regulators have eyed such initiatives as a mechanism to encourage new market entrants and to support emerging use cases like private LTE for enterprises with fewer barriers, not just through the expansion of spectrum access but also through the removal of excessive bureaucratic red tape.
In May 2020, the Belgian telecoms regulator, BIPT, granted 40MHz of spectrum in the 3.5GHz band on a provisional basis to Orange, Proximus and Telenet, as well as to network providers Cegeka and Entropia. The licenses were issued on a temporary basis in order to expedite 5G rollouts in the country amid disagreement about the auction process.
A number of private LTE and 5G deployments have already arisen out of this spectrum liberalisation and are now at different phases in terms of planning and testing. Both the Port of Zeebrugge and Port of Antwerp have collaborated with third parties such as Proximus to gain access to spectrum and support the deployment of on-site 5G connectivity.
The stated ambition and purpose of these private 5G networks is to explore and evaluate potential industrial applications. Similarly, Brussels Airport Company has been working to develop a private network solution for the country’s busiest airport in partnership with operator Citymesh, initially starting with a focus on outdoor coverage and later moving indoors.
It is hoped that the airport-based private network deployment will support use cases across the domains of IoT, mobile safety systems and track & trace solutions.
Last summer, the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency (TRAFICOM) granted spectrum use licenses to Fortum Power and Heat, a state-owned energy company. The liberalisation included a 20MHz slice of airwaves in the 2300MHz band, which were greenlighted for use at the company’s power plant in Loviisa, on Finland’s southern coast.
This represented the first time that the Finnish government granted spectrum directly to enterprises beyond mobile operators and local enterprise networking specialist Edzcom. The latter was snapped up by Cellnex last July, and it has pioneered private LTE in the country through sub-leasing spectrum for use cases in locations such as ports and factories.
In France, a portion of the 2.6GHz band (2570-2620MHz) was offered to urban-based businesses by regulator ARCEP. Beneficiaries include the operator of Paris’ airports, ADP Group and Hub One, as well as major utilities company EDF and mobility company TransDev, each of which now has access to private 4G and 5G licenses for periods spanning between five and ten years.
Additionally, French electronics manufacturer Lacroix Group appointed mobile operator Orange to deploy an indoor 5G network at a factory in Montrevault-sur-Evre. This project seeks to assess the value of private 5G for Industry 4.0 and demonstrate the “factory-of-the-future”. It is founded on a virtualized core network created by Orange, distributed between the premises of the mobile operator and the Lacroix factory itself.
In 2019, German regulator, BNetzA, made enterprise wireless networks a reality when it reserved 10MHz of spectrum in the 3.7-3.8GHz bands for use by private companies. Unsurprisingly, the regulator was greeted with “great interest” for this spectrum, and almost one hundred applications were reported up to last November. High-profile applicants have included Bosch, BMW, BASF, Lufthansa, Siemens and Volkswagen.
A number of research and educational facilities are also taking advantage of the spectrum to deploy private LTE and 5G campus networks. Deutsche Telekom partnered with Center Connected Industry (CCI), for example, to deploy a 5G standalone private network in April 2020 at RWTH Aachen Campus.
The indoor-based deployment leverages Deutsche Telekom’s licensed spectrum assets and revolves around an autonomous logistics device to demonstrate possible industry use cases.
PGE Systemy, the operator of Poland’s national electricity grid, made waves last year when it announced its intentions to deploy a 5G-ready, industrial-grade private wireless solution. The company was chosen by the Polish Energy Ministry to operate the network in the 450MHz band, following the successful trial of a proof of concept (PoC) deployment in operation since 2019.
It is envisioned that the final wireless network could support up to 20,000 private radio users over LTE, as well as providing connectivity for some 14 million smart metres and 35,000 existing and future SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) connections.
Last November, Cellnex and German chemicals company BASF reached an agreement to install what the former claimed will be the “first private network based on 5G technology” in the Spanish chemical industry. This announcement followed in the footsteps of several earlier deployments in other industry verticals and locations including stadium venues like Camp Nou in Barcelona.
More recently, Telefónica detailed a planned expansion of its ongoing partnership with the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) to test private 5G wireless solutions in the country, initially starting in its local TIP Lab in Madrid and later moving to field trials in Málaga.
The deployments will draw upon TIP’s growing expertise in the OpenRAN and Open Core Network domains and demonstrate the commercial and technical viability of a disaggregated architecture for enterprise-based private wireless use cases.
In Sweden, a private 5G network was deployed by the homegrown tool manufacturer Arlas Copco in its factory in Stockholm in the latter half of last year. The deployment is based on localised spectrum in the 3.7GHz band.
This announcement was, furthermore, quickly mirrored in December, when aerospace and defence company Saab shared intentions to deploy a factory-wide private network at one of its manufacturing plants in Linköping. The facility produces aerostructures for Airbus and Boeing, and is being graced with a small cell solution in the upper part of the 1.8GHz band at first, before migrating to 5G later this year.
For years, the United Kingdom has been recognised as a connectivity front runner thanks to the Office of Communications’ (Ofcom) innovative policymaking and supportive government initiatives. In particular, there has been a sharp focus on the enhancement of connectivity in rural and underserved areas, exemplified by the ongoing Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme.
In 2019, the regulator announced a landmark new framework for enabling shared use of spectrum on a localised basis. It invited businesses to apply for “Shared Spectrum Licenses” across the 1.8-2.3GHz, 3.8-4.2GHz, 3.8-4.2GHz and 24.25-26.5GHz bands (with the latter mmWave bands restricted to indoor low-power use).
Given the low spectrum acquisition and maintenance costs associated with these licenses, Ofcom positions them as suitable for businesses of every size. Through the framework, it has sought to enable private LTE networks across sectors such as aviation, utilities, manufacturing and enterprise.
Mobile signal specialist StrattoOpencell (which is part of the FreshWave Group) became one of the most high-profile companies to take advantage of the shared spectrum scheme when it announced a three-year agreement with Vodafone to leverage the operator’s 2600MHz spectrum.
Stratto set out to use the spectrum to provide a 120Mbps wireless broadband service to consumers and businesses without access to a fixed service, initially supporting users at a holiday site in Devon through the deployment of an outdoor network of 4G LTE small cells.
Separately, Centrica Storage Limited, the gas storage and processing unit of UK gas and electricity supplier Centrica, also announced a partnership with Vodafone last year. It involves the creation of a new private “5G ready” network at Centrica’s Easington facility in County Durham, enabling the company to modernise and automate its critical maintenance and engineering operations.
Conclusion: As Spectrum Sharing Grows, Private LTE and 5G will blossom.
Spectrum sharing represents the most significant breakthrough in spectrum policy in recent memory. The early success of initiatives such as CBRS in the United States has blazed a trail and provided a replicable blueprint for other countries and regulators to follow across the world.
Private LTE and 5G applications based on enterprise networks are starting to blossom, and the economic and social rewards emerging are profound.