Russia presses ahead with developing 5G, but allocation of frequencies needs to be resolved first

Late last, year Russia’s leading mobile phone operators, Rostelecom, Megafon, Vimpelcom and MTS, announced plans to create a joint venture to overcome the challenges of creating 5G networks, such as clearing up the frequency band required for their operation.

5G plans have been heavily discussed in Russia for the last few years, but until recently, it wasn’t clear if new-generation networks would be developed by a consortium of existing operators or a designated operator would be formed to focus solely on 5G.

The announcement of the consortium of operators stipulates that the member companies will share an allocated frequency range, but won’t function as a designated 5G operator, with existing operators developing their own fifth-generation networks.

The venture’s main goal is working out the most suitable procedure for allocating and vacating frequencies that could be used for the rolling out of 5G networks, Frederic Vanoosthuyze, chief technology officer at MegaFon, told Computer Weekly. “Long Term Evolution (LTE) commercial networks have come close to the limit of their spectral efficiency,” he said.

“The basic speed that a base station’s single sector can maintain on a 10MHz band is 75 Mbps. Just as it’s the case with LTE, in 5G networks, further increasing data transfer speed is only possible if the frequency range is increased.”

According to Vanoosthuyze, 5G networks’ potential can fully be realised only if at least a 100 MHz uninterrupted frequency range is allocated for their development. “The joint venture aims to resolve this issue by operating as a single negotiator with the regulator and agencies that currently own frequencies,” he said. He added that the joint venture doesn’t plan to build an infrastructure or base stations.

A spokesperson for Vimpelcom confirmed that the operators’ own infrastructures will be used for developing 5G networks, while the joint venture will focus solely on vacating frequencies and launching 5G in their networks using the Multi-Operator Core Networks mode until a required frequency band for building their own networks has been allocated.

One issue that is yet to be cleared up is what equipment will be used in Russia’s 5G networks. Over the last few years the Russian government has been pushing for locally manufactured equipment, pointing out potential security concerns linked to important equipment.

Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, Element company and mobile phone operator MTS recently announced plans to manufacture local equipment for 5G networks based on Open Radio Access Network (RAN).

However, other operators are cautious about open-architecture solutions. “Technically, the adoption of open-architecture solutions could dramatically change the power balance in the network equipment market,” said the Vimpelcom spokesperson. “However, at this time, there are almost no Open RAN products in the market that could complete with traditional solutions. This is also proven by comparative tests we’ve run.”

Open RAN offers a concept whereby a base station is built with open-source software and standardised hardware, such as, x86 architecture, according to Vanoosthuyze at MegaFon. “Using that a telecom operator builds applicable network elements, and adapts program code to suit its requirements and goals, basically becoming an integrator of complex telecom solutions.”

“We are closely studying options for the possible use of Open RAN products,” he said. “A number of solutions are currently being tested, and we are ready to provide our sandbox for testing local and foreign solutions in this area.”

Frequency issue

The deployment of 5G networks in Russia is unlikely to run totally smoothly, operators admit, mostly citing issues involving the frequency band.

Earlier, Russia’s communications ministry said that the frequency range of 4.4 to 4.99 GHz or 3.4 to 3.8 GHz might be allocated for 5G development for free, but most of those frequencies are currently in use.

“The main issue is Russia’s acute shortage of frequencies required for rolling out 5G networks in the so called ‘golden’ range of between 3.4 GHz and 3.8 GHz,” Rostelecom’s spokesperson told Computer Weekly. “No other frequency range could be used as an alternative in the foreseeable future.”

According to Rostelecom, developing 5G networks in Russia using frequencies other than the 3.4 GHz and 3.8 GHz band could lead to a number of problems, including limited options for equipment and devices for operators and end-users, respectively, as well as higher equipment costs due to lower-scale manufacture and longer periods required for deploying fifth-generation networks.

Ideally, three frequency ranges will have to be used for 5G development in Russia, said Vanoosthuyze at MegaFon.

In addition to the 3.4 GHz to 3.8 GHz band (C-band), already adopted for 5G networks in Europe, the lower, 600 MHz to 800 MHz band would be used be for broader coverage, including highways, suburbs and low-rise buildings, and the mmWave, 24Ghz to 29GHz, would be used at sports arenas and large public events.

“In terms of availability, the best situation is with the mmWave band as the lower range is partially used by digital television and C-band by satellite communication,” he said. 

Rostelecom and state-run high-tech and defence corporation Rostec are currently working on a roadmap for 5G development in Russia, which, among other issues, is expected to deal with allocation of frequencies.

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