Getting to 5G first: a spectrum policy perspective
Apr 18, 2019 by Toby Youell


There have been intense discussions in recent weeks about which country was first to 5G.

Was it South Korea, whose government and operators coordinated a 5G launch on 3 April? Or was it the US, where Verizon launched 5G for phones with clip-on adaptors in Chicago and Minneapolis the previous day? Or Finland, which used a recent 5G workshop held in Canada to claim it had been first?

These three countries have very different approaches to spectrum policy.

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has focused on putting out as much spectrum as possible as quickly as possible. “I think one of the great innovations of the FCC has been not to make that determination [on the best outcome from auctions] on our own but to allow flexible use through market allocation, to let companies experiment and see what thrives,” its chair Ajit Pai said last year.

This approach has the advantage of speed but can lead to problems if there is a perception that not all issues have been dealt with—such as NASA‘s last-minute attempt to prevent an auction of the 24 GHz band.

The South Korean model is based on a partnership between mobile operators and the state. This has been very effective at putting South Korea at the forefront of 5G. However, there is always the risk that offerings will not be responsive to consumers’ or even operators’ needs.

Changsoon Choi, senior director at SK Telecom, told the workshop there were concerns that some issues had not been fully dealt with ahead of the 5G launch. These include the viability of mmWave frequencies when antennas are on roofs (because of shadowing) and the need to use 5G New Radio’s non-standalone iteration.

The Finnish model also appears to be based on a partnership, but this one is led by the mobile industry. The regulator, which has recently been reformed, is actively encouraging firms to trial 5G services. On the spectrum side, it has made as much regionally harmonised spectrum available as possible. Heidi Himmanen, chief advisor for 5G at the regulator, says it has made the most available per person of any European country.

Finland even held early auctions of the 700 MHz and 3.5 GHz bands before cross-border issues with Russia were fully resolved. While effective, one might ask why so much policy should be based around the needs of one industry, and what hidden costs that might bring.

Which is the best approach? Perhaps 6G artificial intelligence, in whatever country it is launched first, will be able to tell us.•