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Summary

Since the FCC in the US announced that it is issuing a temporary spectrum license to T-Mobile to deal with increasing capacity demands during the COVID-19 pandemic, the regulator has freed up yet more frequencies and allocated these to AT&T, Verizon, and US Cellular. Such measures are not restricted to the US, however, with many other regulators around the world looking at doing the same as broadband becomes an essential resource during the coronavirus outbreak. South Africa, Oman, and India are the newest examples of nations exploring similar approaches to ensure the public remains connected. This is likely to just be the start, as many more regulators are expected to be issuing temporary spectrum licenses to support both access and backhaul.

Temporary spectrum licenses are required not only for access but also for backhaul networks

As reported in Omdia’s piece, “COVID-19 in Regulation: Spectrum can be an ally to immediately increase broadband capacity,” the US was one of the first countries to allocate additional temporary spectrum to handle increasing demand on its network during the COVID-19 crisis. This ensured that a quick solution could be found to meet capacity demands.Having previously granted additional portions of spare or low-usage spectrum in the 600MHz band to T-Mobile on a temporary basis (60 days), the FCC has now granted additional temporary licenses to AT&T, Verizon, and US Cellular too. Again, these allocations are for 60 days and allow the operators to increase capacity by using spectrum in the harmonized AWS-4 Band, which was originally licensed to DISH, and spectrum in the AWS-3 band currently held in the FCC’s inventory. As the public practice social distancing and remain at home during the coronavirus pandemic, there is an increased reliance on fixed and mobile broadband. So far, networks in the US have been handling the change in usage patterns well. However, it’s important that operators prepare for the future as the pandemic develops.

The US example was highlighted by Omdia as a leading case and now several other regulators have started to adopt a similar approach as they look to take more flexible and responsible approaches to using scarce resources under these emergency circumstances. Oman’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has allocated additional mobile spectrum to licensed network operators on a temporary basis and at no financial cost. It aims to enable operators to continue to provide quality telecoms services to customers as usage surges due to the pandemic, particularly since the regulator lifted the ban on VoIP apps, including Skype, Google Meet, and Zoom, to facilitate communications for organizations, private, educational institutions, and government bodies.

South Africa has also followed suit. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) announced on March 27, 2020, that it is giving operators temporary spectrum to expand their networks to ensure the public remains connected. The regulator has been developing a short-term spectrum relief plan as the country entered lockdown for three weeks.

The latest regulator to look at issuing temporary spectrum licenses is the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) in India. However, rather than this being a regulator-led policy, it is instead a response to a request from operators for a temporary increase to their frequency allocations. They claim the spectrum is required not only for access but also for backhaul networks on a short-term basis to support the surge in demand. Operators have also requested that permissions relating to telecoms towers be expedited to improve capacity, and that customer verification rules be relaxed to reduce the time to onboard new users. The requests are currently under review, but the government should respond quickly to ensure operators are prepared for future surges. Many more regulators around the world are expected to be learning from these examples and looking to issue temporary spectrum licenses for underused or spare frequencies.

Appendix

Further reading

“COVID-19 in Regulation: EU data protection regulators support plan to use data to track pandemic,” GLB005-000242 (March 2020)

“COVID-19 in Regulation: Regulators and operators work together to ensure connectivity is maintained amid the crisis,” GLB005-000240 (March 2020)

“COVID-19 in Regulation: Spectrum can be an ally to immediately increase broadband capacity,” GLB007-000361 (March 2020)

“COVID-19 in Europe: Telcos provide a vital connection; can they afford to keep the continent going?” GLB003-000076 (March 2020)

“COVID-19 in the Americas: The FCC and service providers commit to keeping Americans connected,” GLB007-000363 (March 2020)

Author

Sarah McBride, Analyst, Regulation

[email protected]

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