Dutch policy debate on 5G spectrum is in deadlock: telco’s and military intelligence have opposing legitimate interests in 3.5GHz band

UPDATE 2021-01-08: report from November 2019 by TNO (.pdf): Co-existence of 5G mobile networks with Burum Satellite Access Station operating in C-band.

UPDATE 2018-12-19: the Dutch government has reportedly (NOS, in Dutch) decided to move the sigint collection facility in Burum (NL) to another country (!), something that chief of military intelligence Onno Eichelsheim expressed (NRC Handelsblad, in Dutch) concerns over in an interview. It is unclear which country or countries have been considered. Obviously, if the Dutch want to uphold existing operations and ways of working, it must be a country that has laws that are compatible with the Dutch laws, notably a legal framework that includes bulk search & selection of communication (at least for ether communication, as the Burum facility focuses on satcom).

The Dutch policy debate on 5G spectrum is caught in deadlock: there are opposing legitimate interests of Dutch telecom providers and the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) in the 3.5GHz band. The House of Representatives discussed 5G on 29 March 2018. The 3.5GHz band, the most promising of the three standardized 5G bands (700MHz, 3.5GHz, and 26GHz), is also the band that in the northern half of the Netherlands — above the ‘Amsterdam-Zwolle’ line that cuts the Netherlands in half — is fully reserved for the MIVD’s satellite station in Burum, part of the National Sigint Organization (NSO; which is now part of the Joint Sigint Cyber Unit aka JSCU). In 2016 there was a similar situation when telecom operators sought to improve 4G connectivity using the 3.4GHz band (presumably too close to 3.5GHz).

Below follows an unofficial translation of an article printed in the 4 May 2018 issue of Technisch Weekblad.

Dutch policy debate on 5G spectrum is in deadlock

The deployment of a nation-wide 5G network in the Netherlands may end up being seriously delayed because the most important 5G band (3.5GHz) is reserved for the Dutch intelligence services until 2026. The AIVD and MIVD eavesdrop on ether communications via their satellites dishes in the Frisian place of Burum.

Telecom providers and other industry parties raised an alarm about this in the House of Representatives on 29 March 2018. Earlier, MP William Moorlag (Labour Party / PvdA) even argued that the MIVD antennas should be moved to drilling platforms at sea.

The National Frequency Plan prescribes that until 2026, only the intelligence services are permitted to use the 3.5GHz band on territory north to the Amsterdam-Zwolle axis. Licenses can be issued for territory south to that axis, but only under such restrictions that it is doubtful telecom parties will be interested, says 5G expert Toon Norp of TNO Research. Norp: ‘The discussion about the use of the 3.5GHz band has reached a deadlock. Both the MoD and telecom providers have legitimate interests.’

5G for cars

5G is the next generation of mobile data communication technology. Its bandwidths are 3-10x that of 4G, connections are established 20x faster (lower latency) and a million devices per square kilometer should be able to connect. 5G should realize the internet of things. The low latency is important for communication between self-driving cars. For smartphones, 5G is not a necessity, although the high connection/device density is an advantage. Dutch telecom provider KPN states: ‘4G connects people, 5G connects society’.

Whether 5G will indeed arrive at a large scale is uncertain. GSMA expects the share of 5G connections in the global data communications to grow from 2% in 2020 to 12% in 2025. More than half of the 750 telecom operator chiefs interviewed by the GSMA mentioned ‘lack of a clear business case’ as biggest threat to 5G. The required investments are estimated at 150 billion euro globally on an annual basis. This is largely due to the fine-grained network of antennas that is required to achieve high throughput and low latency.

According to the standard, 5G will use three bands: 700MHz, 3.5GHz, and 26GHz. The 700MHz band, which has the longest waves, does not offer high throughput and is mostly useful to help support a nation-wide network. The 26GHz millimeter band has very high throughput, but due to its short waves has a short range and can only be used for the last couple of hundred meters of a mobile connection. The 3.5GHz band combines the best of both: high throughput and good range. It is the presumed backbone of 5G, but is reserved for use by the MIVD.

Action plan

Next year, part of the 700MHz band for 5G will be auctioned off, but according to Norp, that provides little solace. ‘It is merely a very short band that is auctioned, just 30MHz wide. At most three operators can participate there, while the 3.5GHz band has hundreds of MHz of room.’

Norp expects that 5G networks on the 3.5 GHz band can largely be deployed via existing 3G/4G antenna locations. But simply using the 3G and 4G bands for 5G is not an option for the near future, because equipment manufacturers will first make their 5G equipment work with the internationally agreed bands. Notably the 3.5GHz band.

State secretary Mona Keijzer (Economic Affairs) announced she will present directions for solutions to end the deadlock, and that she will elaborate on those in her Digital Connectivity Action Plan. Norp hopes a creative solution will be found to allow telecom provides and the MoD to share the 3.5GHz band. At the longer term, the MIVD will no longer be able to control the 3.5GHz band. ‘Because Germany will use the 3.5GHz band for 5G’, according to Norp. Regardless of the Dutch government’s policy, the MIVD will get competition on the 3.5GHz band.