What's spectrum and why do we need more?
For those who are not familiar, spectrum is basically space in the air that’s used for communication. Everything we use wirelessly including TV, radio, mobile and even WiFi is using a chunk of spectrum. Just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean it is free or unlimited. In fact, it is a finite resource and telcos have to pay a lot of money to secure a chunk of it. The regulatory body that manages our spectrum allocation in Malaysia is MCMC.
Today, Malaysian telcos are allocated with a total of 650MHz of spectrum for our current 2G/3G/4G bands. According to UTM’s whitepaper, this isn’t enough and Malaysia will need additional 307MHz of spectrum to fulfil the forecasted mobile broadband traffic by 2020. In a nut shell, it’s like not having enough lanes on the highway to support the millions of cars on the road.
Malaysia isn’t alone in this spectrum shortage. Thailand has a gap of 410MHz while Singapore needs 450MHz more by 2020. In Indonesia, the gap is even wider at 625MHz.
How much spectrum is our telcos using right now?
Prof. Dr. Tharek Abd Rahman, the whitepaper’s lead researcher, shared that a Telco needs at least 100MHz of spectrum in order to have a reliable 4G LTE-Advanced experience with 100Mbps speeds. When we refer to the spectrum allocation table above, none of our telcos has 100MHz dedicated for 4G LTE. It is worth pointing out that Maxis is sharing extra 2x10MHz allocation from Redtone while Celcom is also sharing a similar 2x10MHz from ALTEL.
130MHz Spectrum Identified
As an immediate solution, UTM’s whitepaper has identified 130MHz of possible spectrum that could be freed up very soon. One of it is 700MHz which is currently used for analogue TV transmissions. Compared to digital TV, analogue TV transmission is very inefficient. We are told that the amount of spectrum used for a single analogue TV channel is the same as 10 channels in digital format.
Once analogue TV transmission ends on June 2018, 90MHz from the 700MHz band can be repurposed for 4G LTE. Compared to other existing LTE bands in Malaysia, 700MHz is great for wider coverage as it offers twice the coverage radius than 1800MHz which is equivalent to 12 times in coverage area. In addition, lower frequency signals also allow better building and wall penetration compared to higher LTE bands.
Another identified spectrum is the 1400MHz (L-Band) which would provide more capacity than 700MHz. It is currently being used in Japan for mobile communications while others are using it for fixed links and radar, special media events and aeronautical telemetry services. In Malaysia, it is currently allocated for DMS and this extra 40MHz can be released by 2020.
After acquiring a 90MHz block on 700MHz and 40MHz on 1400MHz, there’s still a gap of 177MHz spectrum remaining.