PARTNER CONTENT: Held at this year’s GSMA Mobile 360 MENA event in Dubai, a workshop brought together the region’s industry leaders to explore 5G infrastructure deployments and the growing importance of mobile backhaul in enabling the next-generation technology.
5G continues to thrive in the Middle East. And while the region doesn’t attract the same spotlight as the US and parts of Asia in being a leader in deploying and advancing the technology, there is still considerable momentum in this part of the world, which is only set to ramp.
Research arm GSMA Intelligence forecasts that 5G alone will contribute $52 billion to the MENA economy over the next 15 years, driven by new services, while 80 per cent of the population will subscribe to a mobile service and have a smartphone by 2025 in the six GCC nations (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman).
Ahmed Al Sohaily, CTO of the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) of Saudi Arabia, hailed the country’s drive in particular in establishing a vision for growth in the sector, which will ultimately help to achieve this mammoth growth.
“Our vision looked at ICT as a whole as a key enabler for the future. We talked about having the foundation for the future of the country. If you don’t have a strong ICT industry, you can forget about things like e-commerce. We stopped looking at how to regulate a service, but how to empower.”
Robert Middlehurt, senior director regulatory at Etisalat, concurred, commending the establishment of national visions, which give clarity to what a country is trying to achieve and creating “certainty for investors”.
“By having a national vision, we stop saying no and start being something more enabling, move forward and understand. Regulators and us are singing the same tune and moving in the same direction.
Also speaking in the panel, Andrew Arowojolu, CRO of Zain Group, said his company had made good progress in rolling out 5G infrastructure in two markets where it knew there was demand, but noted that there was a notable gap in how developed the GCC countries were, compared to other parts across MENA. That being said, the ambition is still widespread.
“There is a major drive to roll out 5G and support initiatives to release spectrum and enable fixed infrastructure. In other markets, there are still discussions around the release of spectrum. But even in Iraq we are launching 4G and trials are being held for 5G. Governments are listening… no markets want to be left behind.”
The backhaul battle
The drive to launch 5G in MENA and continue to advance the region’s telecoms sector is clear from operators, vendors, regulators and governments.
However, having an intention to do so, with a clear plan in place, is only one part of the hurdle.
The workshop progressed to look at the growing importance of mobile backhaul in the 5G era, which is essential to making deployments of the technology possible.
Wireless backhaul, which is dominated in this part of the world by microwave technology, will be as key to 5G success as infrastructure deployments and access to spectrum.
Currently, microwave powers 80 per cent of backhaul in the region. And in a panel, experts explored why new solutions around microwave will be required, as well as looking at the challenges of going down the fibre route.
Kenechi Okeleke, Senior Manager at GSMA Intelligence, set the scene, noting that while the GCC countries are strong on key mobile broadband metrics – infrastructure, affordability, content and consumer readiness – there is a deficiency around backhaul in some of the less developed nations.
He said some investments had been made in fibre, but challenges still existed around costs and geography in the region.
“It means there will be a lot more talk going forward around the role of microwave in boosting what we might call the infrastructure gap in the region, that will put it in a position to cope with this growth of data traffic that we will see in the coming years.”
For MTN, one of Africa’s leading operators, the infrastructure gap is indeed a challenge it faces, particularly in trying to keep up with 5G advancements in the GCC countries.
“From a fibre perspective, in countries like the UAE, fibre penetration is very high so there is no problem in deploying it,” said Emmanuel Lartey, Senior Manager, Mobile and Fixed Network Strategy at MTN. “But when it comes to Africa and countries around the Middle East, it is much more difficult. You have terrains which are mountainous, you have right of way issues and ARPU levels of less than $3, meaning the return on investment in putting fibre in is virtually non-existent.”
Lartey noted that 75 per cent of the operator’s physical sites had microwave, and the issue in the 5G era was how to evolve this backhaul to support much higher throughputs coming from the new technology, which he estimated was 4 times the requirements of current 3G and 4G networks.
Spectrum efficiency and E-band
Both the MTN executive and fellow panellist Renato Lombardi, Chairman of the Industry Specification Group at standards association ETSI, pointed to the potential of new backhaul solutions, such as the use of multi-band and E-band spectrum, network sharing and enhancing spectrum efficiency to meet new challenges presented by 5G.
“We see real mmWave, such as the E-band, taking off and becoming a real virtual technology. We are also working as an industry on frequency bands above 90GHz”, before adding that the standards body sees microwave “dominating the backhaul both in rural and suburban areas”.
Lombardi continued to describe the conversation around backhaul as “underestimated”, highlighting the fact that, without backhaul, “you have no access”.
“With increasing access, more backhaul is required and new solutions are required to deal with demand,” he said. “The cheapest way from a technology point of view is to deliver capacity by using more spectrum. We can add more features but we need to add incentives for operators to deploy new features and new technologies.”
To aid the effort, Lombardi pointed to several policy challenges that need to be addressed, particularly with regards to licensing new solutions.
To that effect, the standards body has urged the industry to release spectrum allowing wide channels of at least 1GHz, reduce licences to incentivise the use of mmWave bands to ensure higher channel reusability, and create an environment that favours the deployment of band aggregation and also the release of W-band and D-band.
For traditional bands of between 6GHz and 42GHz, Lombardi called for the introduction of geographical spectrum efficiency concepts, meaning no additional fees for dual polarisation, an incentive to deploy interference mitigation/cancellation and a progressive move from individual link licensing to block licensing.
“This maybe does not have to go through auctions, but could be as part of the spectrum given for access,” Lombardi said. “Like I said, without backhaul you don’t have access. Why is it kept separate? We see symmetry between downlink and uplink,” he added.
No magical solution
Providing a regulatory perspective, CITC’s Al Sohaily acknowledged the backhaul problem with 5G, stating that “you cannot allocate more access spectrum and expect backhaul issues to magically get resolved”.
“Fixing the backhaul situation is a priority for us, even though it hasn’t materialised to the surface and become public.”
Al Sohaily pointed to a national spectrum summary, covering the period between 2020 and 2025, which not only looks at radio access or IoT, but also spectrum usage in backhaul.
“We have multiple initiatives running in parallel. One of them is clearing up and allocating more spectrum such as E-band and the newly identified WRC-bands, but at the same time a lot of legacy needs fixing.”
As part of the push to solve the issue, Al Sohaily said the regulator was also embarking on a “massive” spectrum reframing exercise on existing bands to shorten the list of bandwidths and maximise efficiency.
“We will then refarm and reallocate, with existing users making do with a smaller number of links on wider bandwidth.”
He continued: “The second is to move to new bands and the third is allocation framework and a pricing mechanism. It doesn’t make sense to pay more for backhaul than you do for access. It should be substantially less.”
As evidenced by the 5G workshop, microwave backhaul has a major role to play in powering 5G in MENA in particular. The technology is ultimately touted as just as crucial as some of the more talked about issues in the industry, including infrastructure and access to spectrum.
Clearly, operators, regulators and governments are now keen to act and address the challenge, as 5G deployments across the region take off.Subscribe to our daily newsletter Back