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Dutch regulator hints at 5G network sharing plan

The Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has proposed plans to create a network infrastructure sharing framework to counteract any potential for a digital divide.

With the plans intended to be released before the next spectrum auction in 2020, the regulator is putting in the groundwork ahead of time to theoretically ease the investment burdens of 5G network infrastructure in the rural environments. Telcos generally don’t like to be told how to spend their money, but the ACM is taking appropriate, proactive steps to prevent the digital divide which tends to emerge when telcos are left to their own devices.

“We regularly receive questions about what is and what is not allowed with regard to infrastructure sharing,” said Henk Don, an ACM board member.

“Working together in this can bring many benefits to telecom companies, but this should not be at the expense of mutual competition. With the guidelines we want to offer clarity to the parties on the mobile market and thereby contribute to a smooth rollout of 5G.”

Although the 5G rollout in the Netherlands is progressing at a much slower rate than other countries in the bloc, the pondering approach is allowing bureaucrats to create the necessary regulatory and legislative landscape ahead of time. Other nations, the UK for example, seem to be taking a ‘build now, regulate later’ approach, which runs the risk of creating the digital divide as telcos chase profits and an overbuild situation in the highly urbanised areas. As with anything in life, it is much easier to plan to tackle a problem as opposed to fixing after it has emerged.

As part of the ‘slow and steady’ approach to network deployment, coverage obligations will be placed on any future spectrum auctions. 98% of the Netherlands geographic area will have to be covered by a certain time, though more details will emerge over the coming months as the auctions close in. 98% might sound like a ludicrous objective, though the network sharing framework should aid this.

These are just very top-line ideas which are being presented by the ACM here, though more details will be offered over the short-term. Ahead of 2020, plans are being ironed out for spectrum auctions for the 700 MHz, 1400 MHz and 2100 MHz 5G bands, while the valuable 3.5 GHz 5G auction should take place at the end of 2021 or beginning of 2022. The ACM has suggested the proposals will be in place to ahead of next year’s auction.

Network sharing frameworks are not exactly uncommon throughout the telco world, though many regulators err on the side of caution in the pursuit of competition. The UK is considering such plans also, though these would only be in the regions which are seen as the most difficult to justify commercially. Generally, these not-spots have almost no coverage nowadays, usually home to an incredibly low population density or no-one at all.

This might not be the most rapid of rollout plans, but the ‘first’ tag does not necessarily mean much, or it might not end up meaning much. Laying the necessary regulatory framework ahead of plans, instead of playing catch-up like some nations, might just be a more considered approach. That said, the Dutch Government will not want to fall too far behind.

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