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TRAI proposes freeing up 2G spectrum for 3G-4G in auction

Telecom firms that failed to get 3G or 4G spectrum in the auctions may be allowed to launch such high-speed services using their existing, or 2G, spectrum, according to the latest consultation paper by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

In its consultation paper in response to the Supreme Court judgement quashing 122 mobile licenses, the TRAI has suggested letting operators introduce newer technologies of their choice on their spectrum.

Under the current policy, it is assumed that spectrum given for voice services (2G) should be used only for giving voice services (and slow data services, such as GPRS and EDGE.)

However, since the spectrum was given, as long as two decades ago, technology has lept ahead and newer protocols, such as 3G and 4G have evolved.

Using the same amount of spectrum, the new technologies are able to support 100 times more users or data as they are more efficient.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India or TRAI noted that the International Telecommunications Union or ITU, the global standards body, has set apart 800, 900 and 1800 MHz spectrum for advanced services such as 3G.

In India, most of the CDMA operators are on the 800 MHz band, the big GSM players on the 900 MHz band and recent GSM players on the 1800 MHz band. 3G in India is on the 2100 MHz band and 4G, on the 2300 and 2500 MHz band.

Some firms, such as the three CDMA operators in the country, have already deployed high-end (3G-like) technologies on their 2G spectra, launching high-speed data services. Technically, the operators cannot be prevented from using higher technologies, as their licenses are ‘technology neutral.’

TRAI noted some operators have already asked for the freedom to deploy any technology, so as to increase their efficiency.

“The stakeholder..argued that putting artificial restrictions on technology would lead into sub-optimal usage of the spectrum.

It is quite possible that 2G technologies may not remain relevant for long duration of time. Also, it delays the opportunity to put the valuable spectrum to best usage and for newer and more spectrum efficient technologies,” the body noted in its consultation paper.

It noted that “if at all this spectrum is also to be used for providing IMT advanced services, the policy decisions in this regard will have to be taken before the Auction to ensure “̳Level Playing‘ field.”

“Therefore, one view can be that in line with global harmonization and accordingly, for reaping the benefits of the economies of scale, the spectrum to be auctioned now, should be liberalized, so as to be used for newer and better technologies like UMTS/LTE etc providing mobile wireless broadband services.” it said.

In Europe, it noted, in the third quarter of 2009, two laws were adopted at a European level which provided for liberalisation of the 900MHz band and harmonisation of the 900 and 1800 MHz frequency bands.

TRAI proposed two ways to enable the liberalization of the current spectrum regime by tying it with the so-called ‘refarming’ of spectrum. Under refarming, more valuable 800-900 MHz spectrum is reallocated to high-end services while lower value 1800 MHz spectrum is given for voice (2G) services.

“The first three (GSM) licensees (such as Airtel and Vodafone) are holding spectrum in 900 MHz band in the range of 6.2 MHz to 8 MHz in different service areas. As 5 MHz of spectrum is considered minimum amount to support UMTS/LTE, therefore, in this approach, these licensees can be allowed to retain 5 MHz spectrum in 900 MHz band at the time of renewal of their licences and the rest of the spectrum in 900 MHz band is refarmed by assigning spectrum in 1800 MHz in lieu of the refarmed spectrum.

“However, the licensees will have to pay the price of spectrum both in the 900 and 1800 MHz as determined in the auction,” it noted.

Another “approach could be that all the licensees holding of spectrum in 900 MHz, irrespective of the expiry dates of their licences, are given an option to surrender spectrum in excess of 5 MHz in the 900 MHz band in lieu of equal amount of spectrum in 1800 MHz allocated to them and allowing them liberalisation of spectrum held by them,” it noted.

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