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Telecoms regulator to ensure Hong Kong keeps apace in 5G race

The government’s allocation of new spectrum for 5G services rigidly adheres to global pacts on frequency bands and universal standard set for 2019 and 2020

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2017, 9:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2017, 9:22am

The Hong Kong government is looking to swiftly assign spectrum for 5G services as soon as an international agreement is reached on the frequency bands and universal standard for this advanced mobile system.

“The greatest challenge ahead for Hong Kong is to remain at the forefront of bringing new technologies and new services,” Eliza Lee Man-ching, the city’s director-general of communications, told the South China Morning Post.

Unfazed by recent criticism from mobile network operators about the government’s spectrum management policy, Lee pointed out that Hong Kong led the introduction of 3G and 4G mobile services.

“So the question we often ask our mobile network operators is this: Why would you be worried that Hong Kong will not be in the fast lane for 5G services?” she said.

Known as the latest advance in mobile communications, 5G is expected to support 1 million connected devices per square kilometre; 1 millisecond latency, or the amount of time a packet of data takes to get from one point to another; higher energy and spectral efficiency; and up to 20 gigabits per second of peak data download rate for each cell site.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations agency overseeing development of the IMT-2020 standard for 5G technologies, is spearheading so-called spectrum harmonisation – the uniform allocation of radio frequency bands around the world – for the provision of 5G services.

A decision on the global allocation of spectrum, which has been identified as between the 24.25 gigahertz and 86GHz bands, for 5G services is expected to be determined at the ITU-organised World Radiocommunication Conference in Geneva on November 2019.

The ITU recently said the universal specifications for 5G are on track to be in place by 2020.

That timetable, however, has stirred concern among Hong Kong’s incumbent mobile network operators that the city could end up being behind in 5G infrastructure development.

Industry regulator the Communications Authority has already been criticised for its plan not to release any new mobile spectrum to operators from this year to 2019, same as the past three years.

“We urge the government to accelerate the supply of spectrum to the market and provide a clear road map,” said SmarTone Telecommunications chief executive Anna Yip in February.

Lee, who heads the Office of the Communications Authority (Ofca), the executive arm of the industry regulator, said the government “cannot randomly allocate spectrum in the absence of international agreement”.

“No one is more anxious than the Communications Authority in deploying available spectrum to our mobile operators,” Lee said.

“But pending the ITU’s determination of which frequency bands will be used for 5G services, there won’t be any final technical standards, or any commercial launch of 5G network equipment and handsets.”

“It would not be beneficial to both the operators and consumers if we launch 5G hastily,” she added.

In response to the industry’s concerns, the Communications Authority recently announced its work plans for candidate spectrum for 5G in Hong Kong. It wants to make available the 26GHz and 28GHz bands as the first batch of spectrum for the provision of 5G services.

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Ofca deputy director-general Chaucer Leung said the government is also moving towards getting the 3.5GHz band and 700MHz band cleared for 5G.

Leung said SmarTone was the first operator to receive a permit to do 5G tests. According to SmarTone, its tests are being conducted with supplier Ericsson.

“We are in sync with what the advanced economies are doing in terms of 5G preparations,” Lee said. “We have also been engaged in discussions with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology about future 5G deployment.”

Candidate frequency spectrum for 5G services in Hong Kong:

1) 26 Gigahertz and 28 GHz bands

SmarTone and Hutchison Telecom have been served notices to vacate before April 2019 the 26 GHZ band, which is being used for terrestrial microwave links.

2) 3.5 GHz band

This is currently allocated for use in fixed-satellite services, with around 900,000 users. A technical study is being conducted for proposed band re-allocation. The government will conduct a public consultation in the third quarter this year.

3)700 Megahertz band

This is currently used for analogue television broadcasting services, used by around 400,000 households. The government will review its 2020 target switch-off date for analogue TV services.

Source: Office of the Communications Authority