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Innovation Briefing Issue 6 | Band of Others

  • 9 minute read
  • Published by Crispin Moller on 21 Sep 2021
  • Last modified 21 Sep 2021
When Mansoor Hanif, then Chief Technical Officer at Ofcom, announced that new spectrum bands would be made available for use by organisations other than the major mobile network operators, the reaction was mixed. Today this model is seen around the world as revolutionary and one to follow.
Peter Gradwell

Article by Peter Gradwell, Chief Commercial Officer, Telet.

Three bands were announced: bands 3, 77 and 258. By far the most interesting was band 77, which runs from 3.8 to 4.2 GHz. That mixed reaction ranged from delight that there was so much spectrum available to disappointment that it was in a frequency range with no device support.

Two years on both these reactions hold but to lesser extents. The initial enthusiasm for a band that was 400MHz wide, and the promise of exceptionally fast fixed-mobile access, have been moderated by Ofcom’s restricted allowance of only 100MHz per applicant, while devices that support the frequencies are starting to appear.

The announcement of these bands was made at the Cambridge Wireless International Conference, in June 2019. Hanif said then that releasing the spectrum was a first step, and that once it was available devices would appear, particularly since this spectrum was licensed in Japan and that America looked likely to follow. This has proved to be true, with other countries joining in. Hanif has since left Ofcom to work on Neom, a fabulously ambitious smart-city project in the Middle East.

Innovation Briefing Cartoon - Spectrum

DEVICE DROUGHT

As more and bigger markets supported Band 77, there was an incentive for device manufacturers to supply relevant kit, but it’s important to understand why many handsets may say Band 77 on the spec sheet but might not actually work.

Band 77 is non-operator spectrum. Operators buy the vast majority of handsets. Most people get a new phone free or discounted when they sign a contract. The major handset manufacturers have three top priorities when they consider which features to include. Overwhelmingly the most important of these is what the operators have specified. Meeting the requirements of customers with very exacting specifications is tough, and often leads to internal battles between sales people, who are responsible for different operators, to get their work done first. As band 77 spectrum is not on any of the operators’ lists, it won’t be in the requirements.

As shipping deadlines are very tight, manufacturers may never get to the second priority, which is the addition of features that rival phones have but that the supplying manufacturer does not. This consideration is also with an eye to the operator buyers. It will include features such as a camera with a smile sensor, an under-glass fingerprint reader or a better camera. It’s usually something that helps the sales process, such as radio performance, battery life or support for unregarded radio bands.

The third priority is the addition of features that will make the phone stand out against rivals. At last, we get to the area in which band 77 gets a bit of a look-in because enterprise customers are increasingly important and are pushing the demand for private 5G networks. In recent years, all manufacturers have been dreadful at finding innovative new features for phones. They have played with reducing the bezel, improving the camera, or having a notch or a punch hole. The Motorola Razr and Samsung Flip apart, there has been precious little experimentation with form factor, so instead it’s a race to the bottom on price. That means there’s no desire to introduce new spectrum bands with the associated radio testing. So, while MediaTek and Qualcomm might have band 77 available on the chipset, this is unreliable information when trying to determine if the phone will actually work in band 77, as it’s often not enabled in the operating system.

IT DEPENDS WHO YOU ARE

Given all of this, it’s pretty miraculous that any mainstream phone supports band 77, but the most mainstream of all, the iPhone 12, does. Sort of. Whether your iPhone will work in the band depends on who you are. The iPhone has operator profiles. This determines which features in the phone are switched on or off. To ensure that your iPhone has support for the band, you’ll need to buy it from an operator that has specified it. Can you spot the problem with this?

There are some wrinkles: you don’t have to be an operator to get an iPhone profile, just a customer important enough to Apple for the company to get one written. This typically means you must buy several million dollars’ worth of handsets. But US operators such as Verizon are pushing the door for private 5G and eSIM, which is encouraging Apple and others to develop support.

For the majority of android handsets, the waters are similarly muddy. Support for band 77 depends on two things: what you mean by band 77, and what software is in the phone.  To deal with the second one first, the software loaded onto a phone varies by region and by the local customers. Some parameters can be enabled by re-flashing the phone with the right release of the firmware. This is often available through a bit of web searching, but you need to know what you are doing. It’s easy to “brick”, or kill, the phone.

Understanding what you mean by band 77 is down to standalone or non-standalone. In brief, NSA, or non-standalone, means a version of 5G that uses a 4G network other than in the radio stage. SA, or standalone, is a buzz-word bingo of containerisation, http2 and Release 16. It promises a step change in the way networks are built and delivered. The holy grail is a device that supports B77 SA, but for now you will probably have to speak to the handset manufacturer to get the software for that and then re-flash the phone.

Still, 5G isn’t just about handsets; there are many use cases with connected devices that don’t need mainstream phones. The liberation promise that Hanif made that day in Cambridge may not have come to fruition yet, but we are getting there, and band 77 is becoming a major part of the world’s mobile ecosystem.   

You would have thought that lack of operator interest in band 77 would have been reflected in radio hardware. While operators buy most of the handsets in the world, they buy all of the network infrastructure. After all, that’s the definition of an operator. Hanif’s vision that Japan would unlock devices for band 77 might not yet be realised, but there has been a significant benefit in infrastructure. Network infrastructure vendors have been making apparatus for that market for a while. There is a shortage of available 5G radio equipment, but the need to support Japan means that there is some mainstream equipment – or almost.

Japan doesn’t use the whole of the 3.8 to 4.2GHz band; it uses 3.85 to 4.1GHz, so much of the existing equipment doesn’t cover the whole band. Some other manufacturers make equipment that runs from 400MHz to 4GHz, so again the top 200MHz is not catered for.

This needs to be borne in mind when applicants seek spectrum. The pricing is simple; it’s £80 per 10MHz per year. There is no cost difference between the rural, medium-power licence of 42dBm and the urban, low-power licence of 24dBm. Ofcom reasons that shared-access spectrum is for sharing, and therefore, by capping to 100 MHz the amount that any applicant can have, it’s possible for up to four organisations to licence in the same place. In reality this isn’t much of a limitation, as the radio heads are limited to 80MHz or 100MHz.

Avoidance of interference between radio users is fundamental to the existence of Ofcom. It’s a credo that predates Ofcom, its ancestor Oftel and the Home Office before that.

It goes all the way back to the Wireless Telegraphy Acts of 1904 and 1949. So, it seems sensible that when organisations apply for band 77 spectrum, Ofcom chooses to allocate the higher parts of the frequency band. This keeps the entrant away from the licensed spectrum that is used by operators at just below 3.8GHz.

For an applicant, however, there may be other considerations. If applying for multiple, overlapping licences, it may be sensible to have different parts of the spectrum for re-use. This is not the only option. It’s quite possible to have multiple sites on the same spectrum but split on the time domain.

An aligned concern is that it’s better to have the lower frequencies because the propagation is better. Whatever the driving reason, it’s important not to apply just for band 77, but to specify where within the band you’d like your chunk. Bear in mind that space has to be left for other users to co-habit, so odd, small chunks in the middle are a bit anti-social.

One great example of Ofcom’s flexibility is that it is open to organisations making multiple applications on a single spreadsheet. It’s preferred that you fill out one OfW589 form to accompany the spreadsheet, which gives details of all the equipment used.

A second form you might like to ask for is an exception form, which enables you to state a case for using the spectrum in a way that is not covered by the general rules – for example, to use medium power in an urban environment. Ofcom is always willing to listen.

Ofcom is keen to see shared-access licensing succeed. You should find that emails to spectrum.licensing@ofcom.org.uk are answered in a timely way.

Peter Gradwell

Chief Commercial Officer, Telet


Telet is the UK’s fifth full mobile network operator. It delivers neutral host, private 5G and 5G fixed wireless internet. Gradwell is a recognised communications entrepreneur whose business journey started in his Aberystwyth University flat, from where he became a leading enabler of voice over IP after he set up Gradwell Communications, which has provided telecoms to over 25,000 small UK-based businesses.

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