Want 4G magic? Why India needs spectrum refarming for that

The answer to the painfully slow 2G/3G connections we have in India is to quickly leap frog to the new, cutting-edge fourth-generation (4G) mobile technology.

Watching a FIFA World Cup match on a 3G wireless connection can be hugely frustrating with freezes and reloads frequently interrupting the viewing experience. The answer to the painfully slow 2G/3G connections we have in India is to quickly leap frog to the new, cutting-edge fourth-generation (4G) mobile technology.

 

It’s not about voice any longer but data, and the cry for high-speed mobile data services has been ringing around the globe for some years. In response, many countries have begun embracing 4G, specifically Long Term Evolution (LTE) which is a successor to 3G and offers data download speeds of 300 Mbps on mobile handsets and 1Mbps on fixed terminals. With such blazing speeds, new services including VoIP, streaming video, and video calls become a reality.

 

Watching the FIFA World Cup on a mobile 4G/LTE connection is not a myth but a reality today in countries such as the United States, Japan, and China. It is being deployed rapidly by mobile operators internationally and has been integrated into new handsets by the major manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung. But the adoption of mobile data services has been hampered in many markets, including in India, due to a number of factors. Foremost among them of course is a paucity of spectrum.

 

The 4G/LTE environment ideally requires 20 MHz or more for each mobile operator. Experience has shown this amount of spectrum is rarely available in the traditional frequency bands, given the existing networks and voice customers. Mobile operators deploying 4G/LTE have begun coalescing around a few new bands which are not hampered by existing 2G and 3G networks. Countries in North America, Latin America, European Union, and Asia are moving rapidly to refarm spectrum in the 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 1.8 GHz, 2.1 GHz, 2.3 GHz, and 2.5 GHz bands towards use for 4G / LTE.

 

With Softbank’s recent acquisition of mobile operator, Sprint, LTE technology will now be deployed widely on the S-band (2.50-2.69 GHz) in the United States, as well as in Softbank’s home market Japan. Other US operators have commenced deploying 4G/LTE on the 700 MHz band. In China, the worlds largest operator, China Mobile, has begun deploying LTE on the same 2.6 GHz S-band. With major markets including the US, Japan, China, Canada, Europe, and Brazil committing to LTE on the 2.6 GHz S-band among others, the availability of affordable smartphones and data terminals will reach mass scale soon.

 

This begs the big question for India. What are the plans for the 700 MHz and the 2.6 GHz S-band here? The 700 MHz presents an excellent opportunity for refarming towards 4G/LTE use. However, transitioning the existing Doordharshan broadcast TV service to a digital platform is a necessary and expensive proposition that experts say will take 2-3 years. In contrast, the S-band may present an immediate opportunity for refarming.

 

In 2011, the UPA 2 government scrapped the planned use of a major portion of the S-band that was set to be deployed on the ISRO-built GSAT 6 and 6A satellites. The stated rationale to scrap the Devas-ISRO deal was “strategic and societal” use, especially by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). However, since then there has been no launch of any satellite to service this requirement. The Government must revisit the S-band spectrum allocations and make rationale use of this valuable natural resource by cleaning up any outstanding issues.

 

It is widely believed that the MoD’s need for satellite capacity in this band is restricted to mobile satellite services (MSS) and can be served through the existing allocation of 70 MHz (2500-2535 MHz and 2655-2690 MHz).

 

Unfortunately, the MoD has to rely on the antiquated INSAT 3C satellite and cannot avail of any of the cutting edge technology that is available internationally. Up until now ISRO and the Department of Space (DoS) have been unable to build an advanced MSS satellite to provide these critical services to MoD, potentially making India’s defence preparedness in satellite communications vulnerable.
The remaining 80 MHz in the S-band (2555-2635 MHz), which was originally designated for broadcasting satellite services (BSS) to be used on GSAT 6 and 6A, is a prime candidate for being refarmed for Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) using 4G/LTE. Unlike the 700 MHz band, there are no active users of this spectrum today and it has been lying fallow for the better part of the past decade.

 

Over the past year, neither the UPA’s EGoM on spectrum issues nor the INSAT Coordination Committee (ICC) has approved the use of the BSS S-band on GSAT 6 and 6A satellites, despite DoS’s repeated attempts to persist with the satellite programme. Freeing up the band will provide India with valuable nationwide spectrum for readily deploying new advanced mobile data services using 4G/LTE, in keeping with the global trend and standards.

 

 

Based on the 2010 spectrum auctions and price discovery for BWA spectrum in 2.3 GHz and 2.5 GHz bands, the 80 MHz of BSS S-band is worth over Rs. 51,388 Crores according to TRAI’s analysis. To put it in perspective, the value of the BSS S-band exceeds the revenue realised in the 2010 auctions for BWA for all the licenses put together. Due to UPA’s inaction, this valuable spectrum asset has been not deployed over the past three years.

 

At a time when the groaning fiscal deficit features prominently in the calculation of the first budget to be announced by the Finance Minister, auctioning this precious S-band spectrum would be timely and financially attractive.

 

The DoT has recommended moving forward to refarm this 80 MHz of BSS spectrum in the S-band. Both the DoT and TRAI have written to DoS to vacate this band. Given the paucity of spectrum for BWA in the other bands, the logic of refarming the S-band 2.5 GHz at this time is compelling.

 

The telecom minister in the new NDA government has promised a new revamped spectrum policy in the coming months to anchor the next phase of growth and development of the economically critical sector. When this is unveiled, it will hopefully bring a rational market-based approach to allocating and pricing spectrum, a necessary ingredient to continue the mobile revolution.

 

A new spectrum policy should provide a vision and path to rapidly enable 4G/LTE in India. Inclusion of the refarmed 2.6 GHz S-band in the near term and 700 MHz in the medium term would be welcome to an industry that has been hit hard under the UPA government.

 

India has an opportunity to immediately enter the digital age with state-of-the-art broadband networks that can spur innovation and economic development, but for this it is essential for the government to make adequate BWA spectrum available to mobile operators. Refarming of the S-band is an ideal way to jump-start the process of meeting this need. As a bonus, it will also help close the country’s yawning fiscal deficit.

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