It was actually supposed to happen in the coming month: the auction of radio frequencies that will give the Dutch mobile internet a major boost. You could be downloading at hundreds of MBs per second – much faster than now. Also in busy places, such as stations.
National providers such as T-Mobile, KPN and VodafoneZiggo would like to use this 3.5 GHz frequency band. Several blocks of radio frequencies will be auctioned there, offering enough space for the fifth generation (5G) mobile networks. According to the network providers, this will be an ultra-fast and reliable connection that will unleash the next industrial revolution, and radically improve logistics and healthcare.
Those are the promises. But so far little has come of it.
The European Court of Auditors warned last month that most EU countries are rolling out 5G too slowly. The EU is imposing 5G obligations on member states to ensure that the promised new internet services will work in a unified manner.
The Netherlands, which likes to pride itself on excellent mobile connections, is in the middle of the field by European standards with the roll-out of 5G. The National Frequency Plan that the Netherlands devised – which allocates the available bandwidth to various applications – is not working. Because as long as providers, satellite stations, local license holders and the networks of, for example, the port of Rotterdam and Schiphol get in each other’s way around 3.5 GHz, those important frequencies cannot be auctioned in the Netherlands. That is why the auction has been postponed.
The Ministry of Economic Affairs must do its homework again and revise the frequency plan. Now waiting for a independent advisory committeewho speaks with all stakeholders and has to figure out the conflicting interests.
That’s a tricky puzzle. Frequency space is scarce, there are conflicting economic and political interests. Physics is also not helping to get that super-fast internet off the ground.
NRC spoke with stakeholders from the telecom sector and researchers from Agentschap Telecom, Dialogic and TNO to answer the question: what still stands in the way of faster 5G in the Netherlands?
1 A wide highway is needed: 3.5 GHz
Dutch providers have been offering 5G for two years now via a lower frequency band, around 700 MHz. In that frequency band, the space is limited and you will notice little difference with the existing 4G network. For really high speeds, networks need more bandwidth to transfer data. Around 3.5 GHz, 300 MHz is available for national networks. In theory – after all, the auction has yet to take place – blocks of 100 MHz are available for all three national providers, in which they can quickly offer 5G. That makes sense: compare it to a five-lane highway that can handle many more cars than a narrow country road.
Modern telephones are ready: they can already handle 3.5 GHz frequencies. There are even wider highways, with even more capacity, available in the 26 GHz band, but these will not be auctioned in the Netherlands for the time being. At those 26 GHz frequencies, you can only connect if your phone or modem can actually ‘see’ the antenna – that limits the applications. 3.5 GHz does not have those restrictions, although the antennas reach less far than at 700 MHz. It works like loudspeakers: a booming bass note carries further than high sounds.
2 A traffic jam in the north
It is already very busy around 3.5 GHz. Satellite provider Inmarsat is located in Burum in Friesland. There they listen to distress signals from international shipping around 3.5 GHz. Inmarsat was always “protected” by the radio silence enforced by its powerful neighbor, the intelligence interception station. The MIVD and AIVD listen in on satellite traffic in Burum and that is why no network in the north was allowed to interfere on that frequency. Inmarsat took advantage of that.
As of September 1, this interception station will move to a secret location abroad and the north will be given space for 3.5 GHz for 5G services. Only: if mobile networks in a large part of the Netherlands are active on 3.5 GHz, Inmarsat in Burum no longer hears which ships are in distress.
Inmarsat therefore filed a complaint with the preliminary relief judge, requesting that the frequency plan be suspended. The judge ruled in favor of Inmarsat. The Ministry of Economic Affairs had been ‘careless’ and that should not harm the safety of shipping. It is up to the advisory committee to find a solution.
Inmarsat would prefer not to move and thinks it is possible to stay in the Northern Netherlands if national providers want to make arrangements with their 3.5 GHz antennas, for example by using each other’s network. The providers don’t want that. It is technically possible to allocate less bandwidth to 5G for a number of years – until Inmarsat moves. Even such a temporary solution cannot count on much support from the telecom sector.
3 There is a cheese hole in cities
Even if the 5G puzzle is solved in the north, the three major national carriers are still concerned about local, private networks. These are smaller parties – municipal authorities and companies – that have a license until September 1, 2026 to offer services in the 3.5 GHz band.
Think of broadband internet in remote areas – a mobile network as a replacement for cable or fiber – or wireless surveillance cameras in cities such as Utrecht, Eindhoven and Amsterdam.
T-Mobile, KPN and VodafoneZiggo assume the worst in their estimates. They circle every local network for miles, like a no-go area for their fast 5G network. What remains is a cheese with holes, certainly not a nationwide network.
It cannot be deduced from the antenna register – only the locations are listed there.
The Ministry of Economic Affairs is trying to encourage local licensees to buy new equipment that is no longer in the way. But that is difficult as long as the frequency plan is still under discussion.
Utrecht and Amsterdam indicate that they are investigating whether they can move to a different frequency. Eindhoven wants to move the six wireless cameras in the city to other frequencies before 2026. Eindhoven estimates the costs at 50,000 euros. The moving costs of camera networks differ greatly – depending on the technical solution between 20,000 euros and 1.1 million euros, calculated research bureau Dialogic based on data from the Telecom Agency. The researchers are not allowed to say which city is the most expensive.
4 The frequency distribution creates skewed faces
How is the frequency pie divided? For the time being, the government reserves 300 MHz for public networks, such as those of KPN, T-Mobile and VodafoneZiggo, and 100 MHz for private networks. That 100 MHz is divided into two blocks of 50 MHz, on either side of the national providers. So, two smaller pie slices.
Large companies such as container transhipment companies ECT or Schiphol must operate within that bandwidth.
People in the port of Rotterdam are dissatisfied with the space available for private networks. Preferably they have one large pie slice, like in Germany. There, companies can use 100 MHz of contiguous bandwidth. They believe that this has technical advantages. National providers would rather see less space reserved for corporate networks – after all, they are competing services.
But splitting the private blocks is also annoying for the national providers. That has a technical reason. Frequency blocks adjacent to local networks require more adjustments. That makes them less attractive than the middle block, which only borders other national networks. In other words, that middle block is more valuable in the future auction.
This touches on another fear of the Dutch providers: that even more scarcity will drive up the price due to the relationships between the lots. Significant amounts are already being paid for the frequency blocks. Such as in Germany, where the auction of 5G frequencies yielded 6.6 billion euros.
5 Networks must take each other into account
It is beneficial for a provider to build a network with a few powerful antennas. But they quickly ‘blow’ too far and can cause malfunctions. Many smaller antennas do work more accurately, but that is more expensive and requires more maintenance.
Until 2026, about 300 to 700 . will be additional mounting points for antennas constructed. That is relatively little when you consider that the national providers already have more than four thousand each.
Transmitters always ‘leak’ a bit around the frequency range in which they are supposed to work. Margins are built in to keep neighboring networks apart. That bit of no man’s land in the frequency range comes at the expense of the available bandwidth.
By reorienting and attenuating channels, you can take the neighbors into account. Filters also help. But they don’t work well on the active antennas for which 3.5 GHz is ideally suited. Such an active antenna consists of a collection of mini-antennas, which direct the signal more accurately and efficiently. This is especially useful in busy places such as cities.
5G networks sync also among themselves, to prevent them from getting in each other’s way. There is a difference between synchronization between national providers and that of local networks. KPN, T-Mobile and VodafoneZiggo are geared to users who usually download more data than upload. But many business applications, such as camera surveillance, rely primarily on upload traffic. This makes coordination between public and private networks difficult.
6 The network can cause disruptions
Even at great distances, radio signals in the same band can interfere with each other. This involves tens or even hundreds of kilometers, under the right atmospheric conditions. For example, it is possible that the German 5G network causes disturbances in the satellite reception in Friesland.
In the US, airlines sounded the alarm at the beginning of this year. The rollout of 5G would operation of altimeters disrupting aircraft. These altimeters operate on a frequency of 4,200 to 4,400 MHz. These radar measurements work at take-off and landing; at high altitudes, airplanes use barometric altimeters.
The American aviation sector relies on studies and estimates that are too conservative, thinks TNO expert Rob van Heijster, who says: research did to altimeters. In the US – a vast country with many airports – telecom providers do have the option of using higher powers for their antennas. There is no interference with lower powers. Europe uses 5G frequencies that are even further from the altimeters than in the US.
7 There will be no auction before 2023, the providers think
Although the adjustments to the frequency plan were enforced by Inmarsat, the advisory committee spoke in recent months with all kinds of stakeholders – in addition to Inmarsat, the port of Rotterdam, Schiphol, national providers and independent researchers.
That Commission, led by former CEO of Philips Netherlands Hans de Jong, will issue advice in May. Then the official mill starts turning again.
Minister Micky Adriaansens (Economic Affairs and Climate, VVD) aims to take a decision on the amendment of the National Frequency Plan on 1 October. The ministry does not dare to say how quickly it will go after that. That depends on the advice, and the ministry does not want to get in the way of that process. There will be no auction before 2023, the providers expect.
For providers, the national rollout of the 3.5 GHz band for 5G is only economically feasible after 2026, they say. It is not realistic to make ‘significant investments’ to protect local licensees for a few years – probably shorter due to further postponement of the auction.
In other words: the Netherlands will probably have to wait until September 2026 for national 5G. Only when the local licensees have moved, or synchronized their networks with those of the national providers, can the super-fast network work everywhere.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 26 March 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of March 26, 2022