Brief Description and Challenges

Radio spectrum is scarce source which need to be utilized to maximize its socio-economic benefits by its efficient and judicious allocation. In order to address the issue of spectrum scarcity, some countries have made special practises in term of legal and technical arrangements relating to the spectrum so that other services can use portions of the spectrum initially allocated to a different service/technology. This is called refarming: repurposing a frequency that was initially allocated to one technology for another one. This means spectrum refarming is the process of re-deploying spectrum from available users and re-allocating it to others. Refarming is a cost-effective way to increase capacity of cellular (3G/LTE) services without the need to bid for new spectrum.

There are many technical and legal challenges associated with the process of spectrum refarmation and vacation. The broad categorization is as follows

  • The availability of contiguous spectrum; means the operator should have sufficient contiguous spectrum to support operation of multiple technologies at a time in the frequency band.
  • Allocation of bandwidth to different services across the band with different standards is quite complex, as most have fixed channels bandwidth except LTE; that has scaleable bandwidths.
  • The optimization and planning of different radio standards/ technologies in a single band with different access and modulation schemes is really challenging.
  • The same operator should be using both sides of the spectrum adjacent to the dividing point.
  • Adjacent channel interferences and compatibility issues arise in mixed band plan and require sufficient guard bands.
  • The other challenges include avoiding disruption to existing users on the band/technology that will be refarmed and encouraging them to migrate to new services.
  • The operator needs to maintain quality as the process takes place, not compromising customer satisfaction and experience. Avoiding service degradation means understanding traffic patterns and managing how traffic will be served.
  • Spectrum may be interleaved between operators, requiring reconfiguration to avoid fragmentation. This can require considerable coordination and cooperation.
  • After reconfiguration, a full site/cluster audit needs to be carried out to understand new coverage, traffic distribution, and interference/quality.
  • Some handsets and machine-to-machine devices cannot work with multiple bands or must remain on the old technology. This can be a big challenge when discontinuing the use of a legacy network—any interruption in services can significantly affect roaming revenues.
  • Fortunately, the rate-of-change in consumer mobile devices is quite rapid. Once the spectrum is made available for use with the target technology, for example, refarming GSM to LTE, the spectrum needs to be cleaned up of external interference often caused by legacy signals left behind.

Approaches for Spectrum Refarming

  • One of the biggest challenges facing spectrum regulators is the refarmation of spectrum. It is often difficult to reallocate to a different use frequencies which have been used for one purpose by one group of users for perhaps decades. The need for reallocation – known as refarming, often arises in several ways:
  • The international table of frequency allocation has or is changing and the national table of frequency allocation should be realigned to be consistent with it.
  • A radio service may not have developed as expected, while the spectrum available for another service operating in nearby frequency band is insufficient to keep up with growing demand.
  • New technologies become available which are more spectrum-efficient, allowing spectrum to be freed up either for the same use in that band or other uses
    • Various approaches exist now for re-farming whereby regulators (administrative) address the issues and where users determine the timing and price (market-driven). Some simply require the user to absorb the cost. In other cases, beneficiaries of the change are either invited or required t be reimburse all or part of the transition costs of the incumbent user.
    • One solution involves the regulator establishing a re-farming fund by setting aside a portion of spectrum revenues which are then used to compensate existing users transitioning to new spectrum and investing in replacement equipment.
    • Another solution involves setting on one of several options: partial release, full release, administrative re-assignment and market-based and using a portion of or all spectrum authorization revenue generated by new authorizations to compensate existing users.
    • The ITU occasionally identifies frequency bands needed in the future for the introduction of new services and technologies resulting in changes to allocations and band plans. Such plans are approved by the Frequency Management authorities which provides advance notice of the proposed to enable existing users’ time to plan and implement any consequent changes. Regulators neither renew licenses on expiry of the license period nor issue new licenses in the band for services / technology other than the planned one.

Framework for Frequency Redeployment / Refarmation:

Spectrum redeployment/re-farming is an important spectrum management tool which has been used by administrations for making spectrum available to new technologies and services. Many developed countries, leading in wireless technologies, faced the spectrum redeployment issues earlier, and while realizing its importance, introduced necessary provisions in their legislations and accordingly developed redeployment processes.

In most cases, redeployment of spectrum from the government organizations is very difficult. Countries where spectrum in Government organizations is used more heavily, spectrum redeployment is more difficult as the spectrum is extensively been used by Government bodies and therefore, redeployment funds were created for compensation and efficient redeployment.

Spectrum redeployment from private entities (commercial and non commercial) is not a big problem and is done through voluntary redeployment process. In these cases, licenses are issued for shorter duration and once a band is marked for advanced/new wireless services, a notification is issued to all these licensees that on expiry of the licenses, the same shall not be renewed.

Pakistan did not have a defined framework for the spectrum redeployment. Considering the ITU and ECC recommendations, the leading countries experiences and real issues in hand, there was a requirement that the Government issue a policy directive approving spectrum redeployment framework so that the redeployment could be achieved in a systematic and efficient manner for new technologies and services to meet the Government policy objectives for telecom and broadcasting sectors.

Foregoing in view, “Framework for Spectrum Redeployment” was approved by the Board in its 35th FAB meeting for implementation through Policy Directive by the Government.

Policy for Spectrum Refarmation in Pakistan:

  • Spectrum will be refarmed where its current use is not in the best social and economic interests of Pakistan, it is underutilised, used inefficiently or its use is inconsistent with international allocations.
  • The refarming will ensure the reassignment of frequencies to uses with greater social and commercial benefits than are attainable from the prevailing assignment of those frequencies.
  • Spectrum to be refarmed will be identified in the rolling spectrum strategy. The requirement of spectrum in the context of national security will be given due consideration as per operational requirements of defence sector.
  • PTA/PEMRA in consultation with FAB will propose a refarming framework to be approved by the Federal Government (MoIT).
  • The Spectrum Refarming Framework will be based on international best practices and market demand scenario. The framework will be a combination of administrative, financial and technical measures aimed at moving incumbent users and hence their equipment out from their spectrum assignments in a particular band either partially or completely so that the band may be allocated to other uses. It will also provide a process for estimating the compensation required, where applicable, through a well structured criteria.
  • Federal Government (MoIT), in consultation with PTA/PEMRA and FAB will decide to refarm any spectrum and such decision will be effected through a policy directive.
  • Upon decision by the Federal Government (MoIT) for refarming of a particular band, a Spectrum Refarming Committee comprising of MoIT, FAB, PTA PEMRA and incumbent users will:
  • Estimate the value of the refarmed spectrum using the valuation method to be adopted;
  • Estimate the compensation cost of refarming (for government users only); and
  • Determine timeline for Refarming.
  • The government users who are required to vacate spectrum identified for refarming, may receive compensation for relocating to new spectrum.
  • FAB will assist these spectrum users throughout their transition to a new spectrum band.
  • Funds for compensation may be raised from fees collected from the issuance of licenses that incorporate spectrum assignments in the refarmed band.
  • On refarming, compensation costs will be recovered from the license fees paid through the regulatory authority that collects the fees.
  • PTA will create Spectrum Refarming Fund (SRF) and allocate an amount, to be determined by the Refarming Committee, from the fees it collects for this fund.
  • Payment of compensation to the government users from whom the spectrum is refarmed, if required, will be made as approved by the Committee on the basis of predefined criteria for the purpose.
  • FAB will determine the spectrum allocated to analogue UHF TV services that may be reallocated either wholly or in part to telecommunication services, in order to achieve a digital dividend.
  • MMDS spectrum will also be reallocated to telecommunication/converged services to achieve international best practice and to maximize the benefit of the spectrum.
  • Digital Switch over Policy, Plan and Cut over timelines to be determined through close collaboration of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MoIB) and MoIT in consultation with other stakeholders.

Refarmation of Band 5:

The cellular band 5 (824-849/869-894 MHz) initially assigned for Advanced      Mobile Phone Service (AMPS) in Pakistan was vacated after cancellation Instaphone license and refarmed for 3G/4G services. In 2016, a part of the band was assigned to Telenor through NGMS auction as per plan given below:

Before Refarmation

After Refarmation

Refarmation of PCS-1900 Band:

The PCS band in Pakistan (1880-1900/1960-1980) was initially assigned for Wireless Local Loop (WLL) services in different telecom regions. The band was refarmed in   November 2015. The primary motivation behind refarmation & vacation of the band was to make available more spectrum for UMTS services in line with global practises, after cancellation of WLL licenses due to its limited utilization. The detail of refarming of the band is as below:

Before Refarmation

After Refarmation

Refarmation of DCS-1800 Band:

DCS-1800 band was refarmed after NGMS auction in 2017, wherein PMCL won the bid and has been assigned 10 MHz (1765-1775/1860-1870). After the NGMS assignment to PMCL and prior merger with Warid, PMCL requested for refarmation of Warid band in order to have contiguous spectrum. Subsequently, Warid band was refarmed as per details below:

Before Refarmation

After Refarmation