Digital Regulation Platform

Spectrum management: Key applications and regulatory considerations driving the future use of spectrum



In an increasingly digital environment, adequate access to spectrum is key to expanding the deployment and coverage of telecommunication networks, and addressing the ever-increasing demand for data services. These networks support a variety of online applications, extending the impact of spectrum management to several sectors of the economy by transforming the way people access resources for health, transportation, education, agriculture, employment, government, and financial services. As a scarce resource, spectrum requires proper management from regulators, to ensure equitable access and an interference-free environment among different users and services, as well as to introduce new technologies. Accordingly, there is a need to strike the right balance between regulatory requirements that provide certainty and protect consumers, and the need to ensure flexibility for the development of new wireless technologies.

This chapter discusses key applications driving the future use of spectrum, highlighting some of the main points that regulators are invited to consider on the national level, based on the relevant experience of different country examples.[1] It presents some of the mechanisms for spectrum allocation and licensing of new spectrum, with due consideration to technology evolution. It also looks at promoting the use of spectrum for these key applications, as well as business models that can strengthen existing and new approaches for the deployment of wireless broadband. Another aspect discussed is the implementation of policies that enable stakeholders to leverage these emerging technologies, such as the fifth generation (5G) of mobile technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Key trends in spectrum management for emerging technologies

Spectrum management defines the radiocommunication service allocations, the technical specifications, and determines which types of services and technologies can operate in a country. As such, it can determine the pace of deployment of such technologies.

Wireless technologies have become the most common way to access the Internet around the world, using both licensed and unlicensed spectrum bands, and through a variety of devices. The need to use more teleworking and e-learning applications and the growing popularity of online entertainment (e.g. movie and music streaming, and gaming) have contributed to increasing data traffic, especially using smartphones and tablets. At the end of 2019, about 5.3 billion people had mobile broadband subscriptions, highlighting its importance in providing connectivity (ITU 2019c). Wireless broadband can be accessed in different ways, including mobile networks, Wi-Fi hotspots, satellites, and, more recently, drones and balloons. In the context of constant technology innovation, an effective spectrum policy is meant to foster the deployment of different services.

Mobile broadband requires sufficient spectrum to be identified for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) use – commonly known as 3G, 4G, and 5G – while technologies leveraging unlicensed spectrum require sufficient unlicensed/licence-exempt spectrum. As a result, governments must identify the best possible ways to plan, allocate, and assign spectrum to meet the future needs of operators and consumers, while assuring efficient use of valuable spectrum resources and fostering competition. As spectrum plays a critical role in realizing the full extent of access to broadband capabilities, its efficient use has a direct social and economic impact in multiple sectors of society.

Recently, new technologies and applications have been developed with the goal of enhancing and expanding access to broadband connectivity. Regulators should take them into consideration when looking at the future of their national spectrum management plans, while ensuring the development of existing technologies. For example, in addition to terrestrial 5G networks, applications such as high-altitude platform stations (HAPS) and satellites in non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) have also evolved to support the expansion of coverage of existing telecommunication services. Additionally, digital applications in general, and the IoT ecosystem in particular, are composed of various applications with a wide range of spectrum requirements.

Technology innovations driving new spectrum demand

The demand for access to many segments of spectrum is increasing, as new technologies allow a variety of applications to make use of a broader range of frequency bands. For example, IMT applications using 5G now compete with incumbent services in low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum. While the most common frequency bands for mobile networks to date have been focused on low- and mid-band spectrum, interest in the use of the high-bands for 5G, such as millimetre wave (mmWave) between 24 GHz and 86 GHz, has put them in focus as well. This increased demand makes efficient spectrum use even more important. In addition, applications such as HAPS and NGSO satellites have also increased the pressure to access spectrum in different bands. At the same time, interconnected devices operating through applications like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have proliferated, further increasing competition for valuable and finite spectrum (see Figure 6.1).

Figure 6.1. Technologies driving spectrum demand

Source: ITU (no date); ITU 2016; Mercer 2019; Wi-Fi Alliance 2020; Ofcom 2020a; FCC 2020b; FCC 2020c.

Managing changes in spectrum demand for emerging technologies

While the examples in the previous section show how new technologies are using new frequency bands, it should be noted that these technologies also bring technical advancements that provide a more efficient use of existing spectrum. There are different industry solutions, and it is important to understand their functionalities and impacts on national frameworks. One way is to obtain information through consultation processes in order to review how their spectrum assignment regulation is implemented. This gives opportunity for the industry to demonstrate that interference or sharing issues can be addressed.

Furthermore, regulators should recognize the need for flexible frameworks that foster the deployment of spectrum for new applications. Effective management of competing demands for spectrum is necessary to maximize the use of finite spectrum resources and fully realize the potential consumer benefits of these new technologies, as well as broader social and economic goals, with the overall goal of expanding access to connectivity. Spectrum sharing for both licensed and unlicensed uses can contribute to market expansion, increased competition among providers, and data offloading for telecommunication networks (García Zaballos and Foditsch 2015, 21). These benefits increase consumer choice and allow users to take advantage of new and more efficient telecommunication technologies. Once frequency bands are allocated, it is important for regulators to leverage regulatory flexibility to maximize efficiency among competing services in those bands.

Spectrum management and standards for emerging technologies

Elements of spectrum management

Spectrum management is an important tool for governments to optimize the use of a finite public resource. With spectrum demand continually growing, competition for particular frequency bands will become even greater and efficient use of that spectrum more critical.

Effective spectrum management is needed to:

To keep up with the evolving demand and use of spectrum, regulators should implement best practices in spectrum planning, engineering, and authorization. That means staying abreast of how new and existing technologies are using spectrum. A key aspect of this process is monitoring current spectrum use to identify areas where efficiency can be improved. Spectrum monitoring enables regulators to ensure the compliance of spectrum users with current regulations, identify and address interference issues, and gauge the use of different frequency bands. As new technologies compete with incumbent services across the spectrum, a proactive and modern approach to monitoring is increasingly necessary (Lu and others 2017). Evaluating the efficiency of spectrum use can present challenges, as it may be difficult to compare the relative benefits provided by different services. Governments should consider promoting efficiency by incentivizing spectrum users to deploy more efficient technologies as well as by allowing spectrum sharing, leasing, or trading. For example, in 2017 Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) required operators to phase out their 2G networks in favour of more efficient mobile technologies on a scheduled timeline (IMDA 2017). These kinds of effort are important to advance spectrum efficiency at the national level. Cooperation at the international level provides further benefits and opportunities for efficiency in terms of avoiding interference.

The harmonization of frequency allocations at the global and regional levels can bring significant benefits to consumers, as manufacturers can produce devices and equipment at greater scale, lowering their costs, and consumers can use their devices in different countries, effectively permitting the use of roaming. The decisions taken at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC) drive long-term international harmonization and balanced allocation of spectrum among competing services. For those decisions to be implemented at the national level, and for new services to flourish, national governments must proactively integrate the WRC decisions into their national regulatory frameworks.

For example, the results of WRC-19 included several important spectrum decisions, especially related to new technologies, such as new frequency allocations for HAPS and NGSO satellite systems. The conference also identified additional frequency bands for use by IMT to foster the deployment of 5G applications. In preparation for WRC-23, new studies include identification of new low- and mid-band frequencies for IMT, and several proposals for NGSO satellite networks in existing fixed-satellite service (FSS) bands. These studies will continue the effort of managing scarce spectrum to allow multiple services to operate and can guide the long-term planning for national spectrum management initiatives.

The role of the regulator on national spectrum issues

It is important for administrations to consider how spectrum issues are addressed in the national government structure. Considering the technical nature of the spectrum management functions, there is often pressure to design regulatory structures and internal procedures to optimize the use of resources available and to increase its efficiency. This is even more evident when supporting the deployment of new technologies.

Figure 6.3. Spectrum management entity

Source: ITU 2019d.

It is important to establish a management or administrative body providing leadership and supervision for the implementation of spectrum planning, as long-term planning is almost always a primary task at management level and one which cannot be delegated, because of the consequences and significance of the decisions to be taken (ITU 2019a, 4). Most countries include the spectrum management functions as a branch within the relevant regulator or ministry dealing with information and communications technologies (ICT), and about one in five countries have separate, dedicated spectrum management agencies (ITU 2019d). It is also important to clearly separate the spectrum from content discussions, especially in cases where separate entities within the government deal with ICT and broadcasting and media issues.

In terms of spectrum planning, long-term planning presents significant challenges for spectrum managers as it requires them to foresee spectrum demand far into the future, generally for periods of 10 to 20 years. This highlights the importance of a well-established structure to bring transparency to the process, resulting in a more stable regulatory environment. While relevant for any country, this is particularly important for developing countries that need to attract investment for infrastructure development. Transparency mechanisms can include issuing public consultations, spectrum road maps, regulatory agendas, public access to spectrum inventory and availability of spectrum, as well as spectrum plans for specific services. For example, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the country’s ICT regulator, regularly publishes detailed public consultations on spectrum issues as well as an annual five-year spectrum outlook that sets out an action plan and regulatory priorities (ACMA 2019). The report itself is released for public comment in advance of its official publication, in a further effort to increase transparency and public input. ACMA also maintains an online progress report to allow interested parties to track the implementation of its current action plan (ACMA 2020).

Importance of technical standards for mobile broadband and other applications

The widespread adoption of technology at a global scale depends on a robust consensus over technical standards. Technical standards are agreed upon through discussions at the ITU, as well as various telecommunication standard development organizations (SDO). For example, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is a group that publishes the specifications for mobile technologies.[2] Regulators need to be mindful of the work done in the SDOs to better anticipate and prepare for new developments that could require changes in their spectrum frameworks.

Box 6.1. Guidelines for limiting human exposure to electromagnetic fields

Another important aspect of international standards is compliance with guidelines for limiting human exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF). The advance of new technologies, especially with the deployment of 5G networks, is driving the densification of telecommunications networks. More and more small cells are being deployed, supporting high-capacity networks in small high-density areas. Additionally, previous editions of standards for the calculation of maximum acceptable limits, which are often referenced in national regulations, did not include frequency ranges for mmWave bands.

In order to address this situation, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has updated its guidelines on limiting exposure to EMF for the protection of humans exposed to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF) in the range 100 kHz to 300 GHz (ICNIRP 2020). As of June 2020, no countries have formally adopted the new guidelines yet, though most countries around the world, and nearly all of Asia, Europe, and South America, adopted the 1998 guidelines, incorporating them into national EMF regulations (GSMA 2019). Some countries implement limits stricter than those in the ICNIRP guidelines, when incorporating them into the national regulatory framework. As noted by an ITU study, until 2022 up to 63 per cent of mobile data traffic demands would not be served in countries and regions where EMF limits are significantly stricter than those defined in the ICNIRP guidelines. This emphasizes the need for EMF exposure limits be harmonized worldwide (ITU 2019e). Regulators should take the ICNIRP guidelines into consideration and update their national regulatory frameworks to address the limits when using new technologies, such as 5G and small cells.

Source: GSMA 2019; ICNIRP 2020; ITU 2019e.

National spectrum licensing

Spectrum is a limited natural resource that is managed and assigned by national administrations, taking into account the decisions made at the regional and international level. Regional agreements may facilitate the spectrum licensing process in a determined area, especially to coordinate on potential cross border issues. Furthermore, the ITU Radio Regulations (RR) is the international treaty dealing with spectrum management.

Spectrum is used to support many different applications, including mobile, fixed, satellite, broadcasting, and amateur radio services. To manage the wide variety of different services and mitigate harmful interference, regulators issue national frequency allocation tables and establish licensing frameworks that govern how spectrum will be awarded in the country. Most generally, spectrum is licensed through one of the mechanisms shown in Figure 6.3.

Figure 6.3. Spectrum licensing mechanisms

Individual spectrum licences are usually assigned through an administrative assignment or “beauty contest” approach, an auction approach, or a hybrid approach which contains elements of both a direct assignment and an auction. Mobile spectrum is usually issued under an individual spectrum licence via either direct assignment, auction, or a hybrid approach.

Apparatus licences are commonly issued by direct assignment, on a first-come, first-served basis. The apparatus licence authorizes the operation of an individual device or type of device to deliver an approved service at a defined location. They are frequently used for fixed point-to-point links, and for bands with adequate spectrum supply for the demand of the different users. For example, Australia authorizes fixed links under an apparatus licence framework.

Unlicensed spectrum are frequency bands that are exempt from licensing, normally used for the operation of low-power, short-range devices. Devices in unlicensed bands should operate under defined technical conditions to ensure that they do not cause harmful interference to other radiocommunication users. Unlicensed bands enable widespread use of various technologies, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and the IoT.

All three types of licences play important roles in national spectrum licensing frameworks, as well as the concept of technology neutrality in the licence terms. Fixed link apparatus licences for backhaul services play a key role in supporting mobile networks. For example, the United States has introduced a light licensing model for fixed point-to-point links. Under the light licensing model, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues non-exclusive nationwide licences applicable for the 71-76 GHz, 81-86 GHz, and 92-95 GHz bands, and the licensee must then register each link through a designated third-party database manager (FCC 2003).

Given the general difficulty in obtaining spectrum under individual spectrum licensing compared to other licence types, regulators are often careful when designing assignment processes to consider market conditions and to foster an enabling environment for investment. Regulators seek to increase regulatory certainty and encourage investment by granting licences for longer terms. While licence terms can vary from to 25 years, most commonly they are issued for terms of between 10 and 20 years (ITU 2019d). For example, the generally preferred approach in the United Kingdom is to issue a licence for an indefinite term with an initial period, after which time the Office of Communications (Ofcom) will be able to revoke the spectrum under specific spectrum management reasons with notice to the licensee (Ofcom 2005). Colombia is also trending toward longer licence terms with the passage of its new ICT Modernization Act, which extended licence terms from 10 years to 20, with the possibility of a renewal of up to 20 years (Law No. 1978 of 25 July 2019, Art. 12). The European Union’s European Electronic Communications Code mandates 20-year licence terms, although some Member States have interpreted the guidelines by assigning licences with a 15-year term and the possibility of a five-year renewal (Directive 2018/1972, Art. 49).[3] Also, in Brazil, new amendments to its telecommunications law allow spectrum licences to be renewed indefinitely for terms of up to 20 years, subject to rules to be defined by the National Telecommunications Agency (Anatel) (Law No. 13879 of 3 October 2019, Art. 167). Most African countries are still using fixed term licences varying from 10 to 15-year term for dedicated technologies.

These examples show how regulators are increasingly balancing regulatory certainty for operators with a measure of flexibility for the regulator to adjust to market conditions. In the above examples, operators are guaranteed spectrum for a defined period, while regulators maintain some oversight and flexibility during licence renewals. This allows regulators to match spectrum holdings to fit the market and ensure the most effective use of the resource, which could include a decision to refarm the band as a result of market demand.

In addition to longer licence terms to increase regulatory certainty for operators, regulators have also been cognizant of operators’ investment and deployment burdens to improve networks. These costs, coupled with other overhead costs such as spectrum utilization fees, may impact operators’ ability to invest. Recent assignments, through both administrative, auction, and hybrid approaches, have shown the trade-off between spectrum revenue maximization and fulfilment of other policy aims, such as ensuring connectivity access to all the population.

Recent trends in administrative assignment processes

Administrative assignments are common for many types of services, like fixed links, gateway earth stations, and other apparatus licences, and is also an approach to licence mobile spectrum. For common spectrum uses, e.g. for fixed links for backhaul services, the assignment process is generally straightforward and well defined. As most regulators have already issued such licences, guidance and relevant application forms are usually available and applications are processed and assigned on a rolling basis. As for other types of licences that are not as commonly requested or licences for new technologies, the applicable licensing frameworks and procedures may not be as clear. This increases regulatory uncertainty for potential applicants of new technologies or business models, as the procedure, processing time, and the likelihood of a successful application are often unknown.

Regulators also assign mobile spectrum by direct assignment. Unlike other services, assignments for mobile spectrum are not usually issued on a rolling basis but rather the regulator opens a call for applications to issue all or part of available spectrum in a certain band at one time. When assigning spectrum, many regulators award spectrum according to criteria in alignment with policy objectives. While some of the spectrum auctions for 3G and 4G networks were based on government revenue maximization, which might have led to failed auction results, more recently countries are focusing on deployment requirements such as the expansion of coverage, and access to faster mobile broadband in underserved areas. The high expected costs of 5G have encouraged some regulators to discount spectrum or offer it in exchange for network investment and deployment commitments to encourage 5G networks in the country. Japan and China are recent examples of countries that have taken this approach (MIC 2019a; MIC 2019b; GSMA 2020, 44). Other regulators, e.g. in Hong Kong, China and Uruguay, reflected on the policy impetus of deploying 5G networks and the relative abundance of 5G spectrum and decided to offer or refarm the spectrum without a fee (OFCA 2019b; URSEC 2019).

When assigning spectrum administratively, regulators should be clear and transparent in the assignment criteria, procedure, relevant documents, and timeline, no matter for which service the spectrum is being assigned. For assignments of a limited number, such as mobile spectrum, regulators should open the process to new entrants in the market by publishing rules and announcements publicly and avoid closed-door processes. As shown in the above examples, direct assignment processes allow regulators to encourage and drive certain policy aims, such as to facilitate 5G network deployment or increase coverage to underserved or unserved areas of the country. Using assignment processes in such a way gives regulators an effective tool to meet policy goals. Also, allowing spectrum trading in the licence terms, including those for mobile services, can help to balance spectrum demand with supply by allowing operators to sell underutilized spectrum to another party that values this licence more highly. Tradable spectrum rights provide incentives to licensees to use spectrum in a more efficient manner (ITU 2018a).

Apart from mobile services, many new services and emerging technologies are being developed, which require spectrum to operate. Regulators should proactively issue guidance on the applicable licensing regime, especially for those services whose use has been designated at the regional or international level. Licensing new services may require some trial and error, highlighting the importance of allowing for temporary and experimental licences. Regulators should openly communicate with new service providers to ensure regulation does not inadvertently hinder innovative services or business models. Additionally, regulators could consider streamlining the assignment process for certain applications that require little coordination and oversight, such as when applying for highly directional fixed link spectrum, where coordination can be more easily managed, and harmful interference mitigated. Prompt processing times for spectrum applications that are accepted on a rolling basis should be the goal to facilitate access and expand services. Additionally, posting information on the availability of relevant bands publicly would be helpful for applications requesting spectrum that is assigned on a first-come, first-served basis in a crowded band.

Spectrum management practices amid extraordinary events

In general, regulators should be aware of the various demands for spectrum in their markets and release sufficient spectrum to support applications that allow high-quality connectivity and viewing, especially in the situation of extraordinary events. As an example, in 2020 several regulators have addressed spectrum issues in response to increased demands on communication networks, driven by the shelter-at-home orders in many countries around the world to combat the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.[4]

Recent trends in auction and hybrid processes

Spectrum auctions represent the market’s valuation of spectrum and are a common means of awarding spectrum. Regulators have a degree of flexibility in auction design, allowing them to incorporate specific targets tailored to the unique policy aims of the country and the circumstances of the market. When deciding which obligations to incorporate, regulators should consider conducting public consultations on planned guidelines to ensure the scope and timeframe of the obligations are realistic and do not unintentionally discourage potential bidders from participating. To promote new entrants, auction guidelines can differentiate incumbent and new entrant obligations. Similarly, establishing spectrum caps or requirements for the winning bidders to provide wholesale access are additional actions that may support smaller players, ultimately to promote competition in the market. Auctions that have “use it or lose it” rules are sound obligations that can prevent potential hoarding and promote effective use of spectrum, although regulators should give due consideration to the realistic amount of time needed by operators to use spectrum, especially if network upgrades or deployments are needed.

In their most basic sense, auctions focus on an operator’s willingness to pay as a determinant to receive spectrum. However, regulators are increasingly designing auctions that consider other criteria. For the continuous deployment of 4G, and more recently of 5G networks, many countries have incorporated clauses in licence terms requiring the licensee to meet certain coverage, deployment, speed, or other service quality requirements, or to uphold competition in the market.

Several auctions have established measures to improve coverage and services including in Germany, the Slovak Republic, and the Czech Republic, among others (BNetzA 2019; RU 2020; CTU 2020). Other common elements of auctions are aimed specifically to promote competition, such as establishing spectrum caps, requiring licensees to offer wholesale access or provide national roaming. Additionally, many licence terms include “use it or lose it” policies that require spectrum to be used before a certain date to ensure effective use of the spectrum and prohibit spectrum hoarding.

In some cases, countries have discounted the prices paid for use of the spectrum in exchange for coverage commitments to encourage the narrowing of the rural digital divide. In Sweden, the winning bidder of a 700 MHz block of spectrum with coverage and deployment requirements received a credit of SEK 300 000 000 on the spectrum price in exchange for meeting these requirements and improving service in underserved areas (PTS 2018). In the United States, for the planned auction of the 3.5 GHz band, operators providing service to predominantly rural areas are eligible for a 15 per cent discount on the winning bid price (FCC 2020a). Colombia’s ICT Modernization Law allows operators to make in-kind payments in terms of network deployments to cover a portion (up to 40 per cent) of the cost of frequency licences (Law No. 1978 of 25 July 2019). In a recent auction, winning bidders committed to deploying service in specified rural areas over the next five years as in-kind payments (MinTIC 2019; MinTIC 2020).

Hybrid processes, which have elements of both direct assignments and auctions, are also integrating goals to increase coverage, encourage network deployment, and ensure competition in the market. France’s assignment procedure of the 3 400-3 800 MHz band is an example of a hybrid process. In the first “direct assignment” phase, only bidders who commit to optional commitments are eligible to receive one of four 50 MHz blocks.[5] In the second “auction” phase, bidders can bid for additional 10 MHz blocks in subsequent rounds, up to a spectrum cap of 100 MHz per operator. The regulator has also set a minimum cap of 40 MHz over the two phases of the auction, presumably to ensure that all operators are guaranteed a portion of the spectrum for the provision of 5G services. All winning bidders will be subject to 5G deployment, coverage, and speed obligations and are also required to make mobile networks IPv6-compatible and use network slicing (Arcep 2019).

Regardless of the obligations established, regulators must have the means to effectively monitor adherence to the licence’s obligations, such as coverage and timely deployments, to ultimately make progress towards achieving the policy goals.

Licensing for local and private networks

Different from other IMT generations, the opportunities from 5G are often discussed in terms of the new use cases and applications they enable. To use spectrum efficiently, some regulators are offering spectrum to non-traditional players for private networks to support localized 5G applications. Localized spectrum allows operators to tailor private networks according to their specific needs, especially for applications requiring a high degree of precision and low latency. Deployment costs in the small localized area are much lower and can be rolled out at a much quicker pace than waiting for a national provider to establish high-quality and reliable national service to support their foreseen 5G applications.

Industrial actors have been interested in the possibilities of designated spectrum to support various industrial applications within 5G private networks, such as smart factories. Designated spectrum allows industrial players to customize their networks according to their needs and the applications they wish to support, potentially more so than if they had to rely on a mobile operator’s network. For example, Germany opened 100 MHz in the 3.7-3.8 GHz band for 5G local spectrum licences for “Industry 4.0” purposes. The localized assignments allow many more users to obtain a large bandwidth of frequency in different areas of the country, meaning that local users could have up to 100 MHz of spectrum solely to support their private needs (BNetzA 2020). Several regulators have released spectrum for local networks or plan to do so in the future (Table 6.1).

Table 6.1. Examples of licensing for local and private networks

Country Band Envisaged usages
Germany 3.7-3.8 GHz (available) and 24.25-27.5 GHz (potential) Industry 4.0, agriculture, forestry; Local 5G applications (industrial, mobile broadband, fixed wireless access)
United Kingdom 1 800 MHz, 2 300 MHz, 3.8-4.2 GHz, and 24.25-26.5 GHz (first-come, first-served basis) Private networks, or to offer rural or indoor coverage, or fixed wireless access
Chile 3.75-3.8 GHz (planned) Local private networks
Brazil 3.7-3.8 GHz (consultation) Local private networks
Japan 2 575-2 595 and 28.2-28.3 GHz MHz (awarded) Local private network (used for high-definition, AI-powered security system)
Hong Kong, China 27.95-28.35 GHz (available on first-come, first-served basis) Provision of localized wireless services in defined areas of no more than 50 square kilometres
Malaysia 26.5-28.1 GHz (plans to award on first-come, first-served basis) Localized/private networks for enterprise and industrial services

Source: BNetzA 2020; Ofcom 2019; Chile, Resolution 2400 of 28 November 2019 (; Anatel 2020; Fujitsu 2020; OFCA 2019a; MCMC 2019.

The trend towards local licensing is linked to the usage scenarios enabled by 5G, especially those for industrial applications that require high bandwidth and low latency, over a small coverage area. This approach encourages the deployment of industrial 5G use cases while national 5G networks are being deployed at a more measured pace, a goal that various regulators support. Many regulators are issuing these licences on a first-come, first-served basis, which is aligned with policy goals to promote access to spectrum for quick deployment and adoption of new 5G applications.

Sharing regimes: licensed shared access and licence-exempt

Shared access regimes can either be part of a licensed or unlicensed regime (see Figure 6.4). Under licensed shared access (LSA), use is authorized by a licence for a set of different types of services or between users, under conditions defined in the licence. Spectrum is managed between services to avoid harmful interference. This could be managed statically, where use is not allowed under specified terms, or dynamically, where spectrum use can vary, considering use on a certain frequency, in a given area, at a specific point in time. The number of users allowed under a licensed shared access regime is usually limited and the terms of use define the priority of users in the band, where incumbent users are protected. Under a licence-exempt regime, no licence is required, and the number of users is not limited by the regulator. However, users usually must adhere to technical restrictions (e.g. power limits for receivers and transmitters, maximum levels of out-of-band transmissions, and so on).

Shared access regimes are one way for regulators to open spectrum to more users and to facilitate efficient use of spectrum bands. Licence-exempt spectrum bands have proven to be a breeding ground for innovation, as evidenced by the importance of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies in enabling new applications and Wi-Fi’s importance in mobile operator’s traffic management regimes to offload traffic. However, at times regulators must manage shared use to avoid harmful interference, making licensed shared access a more attractive option to open additional spectrum while protecting existing services.

Figure 6.4. Spectrum sharing regimes

Licence shared access arrangements

Licensed shared access regimes have benefited from technical advances, such as geolocation databases and sensing, that enable more dynamic management of spectrum (OECD 2014, 25).

The shared access framework proposed in the United States for the 3.5 GHz band dynamically manages spectrum use between incumbent users, priority access licensees, and general authorized access users. Incumbent users are most protected against harmful interference, whereas general users receive no protection from other users. The three-tier approach was adopted to manage spectrum use between incumbent federal and non-federal users of the band and citizens broadband radio service, and to accommodate new applications, including 5G and the IoT (FCC 2020a).

A recent trend in licensed shared access is in local licensing for mobile spectrum, because of the localized nature of private 5G networks and the possibility of coexistence with mobile national networks. The United Kingdom and Hong Kong, China have adopted a licensed shared access approach to their local licences (Ofcom 2019; OFCA 2019a). Local shared access is seen in other formats as well. For example, China authorized four mobile operators to use spectrum on a shared basis, but for indoor use only (MIIT 2020).

These shared arrangements provide a tool for regulators seeking to assign spectrum to new services in bands already allocated to incumbent services. This approach can also leverage spectrum that may be underused or unused by the current licensees in certain areas. Regulators looking to establish licensed shared access in certain bands should establish clear mechanisms for spectrum sharing that protect incumbent users while still maximizing the amount of spectrum available and the certainty for its use by other users.

Both static and more dynamic management of spectrum may be relevant, depending on the circumstances of the incumbent use in the band. Spectrum management costs to implement these solutions differ considerably and should be taken into account when deciding on the licensing arrangements.

Licence-exempt spectrum

In addition to licenses issued for exclusive or shared use of spectrum, licence-exempt spectrum is also important in spectrum management frameworks. Several applications operate in licence-exempt bands, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, radiofrequency identification (RFID), industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) equipment, and other short-range devices. These bands are expected to continue to play an important role in the future, considering that Wi-Fi and IoT applications often operate in licence-exempt bands. Countries around the world have opened certain bands for unlicensed use, acknowledging their substantial benefits and the wide range of applications that operate in them.

The light regulatory burden of these spectrum bands supports innovation. Unlicensed use is especially important when considering the important role that Wi-Fi plays in offloading mobile network traffic and the expected increase in IoT use and breadth of IoT applications in 5G. Both the United Kingdom and the United States have released or are considering the release of additional bands for unlicensed use in the 6 GHz and above 100 GHz bands (Ofcom 2020a; Ofcom 2020b; FCC 2020b; FCC 2019b). Other countries are considering unlicensed use as a possible solution to rural broadband connectivity. For example, Argentina consulted on a proposition to allow unlicensed use on a secondary basis in rural areas with less than 100 000 residents (Resolution 21/2019).[6] Other countries, such as Kenya, have considered the use of segments of unused broadcast television channels, known as TV white spaces, to provide broadband in rural areas.[7]

Regulators should consider the role of licence-exempt spectrum and the possibilities of releasing additional spectrum on a licence-exempt basis in certain bands to support future networks and applications using spectrum. Regulators should conduct due diligence to ensure coexistence with other users and establish clear guidelines and operating parameters for unlicensed use to avoid possible harmful interference.

Spectrum trading and leasing

The concept of spectrum trading and leasing is permitting a secondary spectrum market, in which licensed operators are allowed to trade their assigned spectrum usage rights to other users. About one in three countries allow the secondary trading of spectrum, mostly in Europe (ITU 2019d).

New business models and spectrum usage innovations

Active infrastructure sharing: joint networks

Especially with mobile networks, more operators are teaming up with competitors to share infrastructure and investment costs. This trend started because of the need to densify networks in urban centres, and also to fulfil coverage obligations in less-populated areas. Widely implemented for 3G and 4G networks, infrastructure sharing is especially important to reduce the costs of 5G network deployments. While cooperation is more commonly focused on passive infrastructure, there are some instances of sharing of active infrastructure, including spectrum resources. In Sweden, Tele2 and Telenor agreed to roll out a joint national network to provide 5G services and share spectrum through their joint company, Net4Mobility, including 2×10 MHz in the 700 MHz band. The two operators have cooperated in the past to deploy and operate a 2G and 4G national network and have updated their agreements to quickly build out the joint 5G network (Tele2 2018). Other examples of sharing of spectrum resources include radio access network (RAN) agreements, where operators agree to share their respective networks under defined terms. Mobile operators in France, Finland, Denmark, and Poland have undertaken sharing agreements, although these are often qualified with terms defining the geographic area of sharing and/or the timeframe of the sharing agreement (BEREC 2018, 10-11).

Such sharing arrangements allow operators to split the burden of network investment and shorten the time needed to deploy national networks. Many regulators are in favour of actions that encourage network deployment and investment, which aligns with the goals of spectrum sharing models. However, this model does have potential risks to competition, depending on the conditions of the sharing agreements, the extent of the joint activities, and the competitiveness of the market. However, these risks can be managed with regulatory oversight. For instance, spectrum sharing could be allowed only for a specific period, or until sufficient spectrum is released to avoid only one national network being deployed in a specific area and to encourage network redundancy and competition in the market. Other measures could be put in place to prevent the parties from acting like a merged entity or gaining dominance in the market, compared to other competitors. Regulators may consider allowing active infrastructure sharing to encourage a quicker deployment of networks and a shared burden of investment among operators.

Network slicing

In addition to new trends in spectrum licensing by regulators, new types of innovations are facilitating more efficient use of spectrum. Network slicing, a form of network virtualization made possible through software-defined networks and network function virtualization, for example, allows several service networks, or slices, to be served with the same physical infrastructure (OECD 2019, 28-29). This enables operators to provide different types of services per network slice, tailored to the necessary service characteristics, such as latency, speed, security, or reliability.

As mobile operators transition from 4G to 5G networks, network slicing can help them to use their spectrum and networks efficiently to meet network needs as more data-heavy 5G applications begin to be supported. Network slicing is expected to have most impact once 5G networks have been fully rolled out, when different 5G usage scenarios take root, and networking slicing can be applied on a large scale.

Spectrum repurposing and refarming

To maximize the use of spectrum and thereby better address spectrum demand from relevant stakeholders, regulators are undertaking administrative, financial, and technical measures to recapture spectrum and reassign it for new uses. Spectrum repurposing and refarming is not a new concept, but it takes on even greater relevance as countries seek to make more spectrum available to meet the spectrum demand of new services and technologies. Such approaches have considered both spectrum used for existing mobile technologies and spectrum used by other services. The main point is the optimization of the use of the same spectrum through the migration from older technologies (e.g. 2G) to newer technologies (e.g. 4G or 5G). For instance, 4G networks are about 15 to 30 times more optimized in the use of spectrum than 2G, and can be implemented in frequency bands that were originally designed for 2G, such as the 850 MHz, 900 MHz, and 1 800 MHz bands.

An overarching principle that can be applied to all licence types is the concept of technology neutrality. This would facilitate the migration from one technology to the next and remove regulatory impediments.

One high-profile repurposing target has been driven by the migration of television broadcasting from analogue to digital transmission, which enables the provision of improved television services while using less spectrum. The spectrum that can be repurposed from analogue broadcasting to other uses – referred to as the digital dividend – has been earmarked by many policy makers for the provision of mobile broadband services. In fact, the creation of the digital dividend has been a major driver of digital broadcasting migration around the world, as about two-thirds of countries have already reallocated the digital dividend spectrum to cellular mobile services (ITU 2019d).

Key findings

The key findings from this review of best practices for applications and regulatory considerations that are driving the future use of spectrum are given below.


  1. For more detailed examination of the topics covered in this chapter, see relevant thematic sections on the Digital Regulation Platform.
  2. available here
  3. available here.
  4. A live compilation of these different initiatives is summarized at available here.
  5. The optional commitments include actions to foster innovation by providing customized solutions to economic actors or assign frequencies locally, provide indoor coverage, supply fixed access products on mobile networks, improve mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) hosting, and increase transparency (Arcep 2019).
  6. available here.
  7. available here.


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Last updated on: 19.01.2022
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