5G: What if the operators join forces? Orange is open at id.

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5G will be rolled out in France from 2020, but the question of network sharing between operators is already being raised, which could have many advantages.

Should mobile operators join forces to deploy 5G in France? That is the question that was indirectly asked of the CEO of Orange by Les Échos when he was surveyed about his group’s environmental footprint and the measures he intended to take to reduce it or, at the very least, to prevent it from increasing any further.

One of these levers for action could be the pooling of operators’ networks. In this area, it is common for the four major players in the sector – Orange, SFR, Bouygues Telecom and Free Mobile – to work together: Bouygues Telecom and SFR are allied in 2G, 3G and 4G and, in a different vein, Orange once carried Free Mobile’s communications in 2G and 3G.

  • Read: 5G: what will be the obligations of operators?

On this subject, the head of the incumbent operator is open to this perspective: “The question of a high degree of mutualisation arises. In France, some of our competitors [SFR and Bouygues, NDLR] already share their networks to a large extent; we are also thinking about it,” says Stéphane Richard. Abroad, moreover, Orange has signed similar agreements and this is a general trend.

It must be said that this approach makes it possible to reduce deployment costs, especially since it is already known that the purchase of 5G licences will cost at least EUR 2.17 billion – this is the lowest range, which, moreover, only concerns the 3.5 GHz band and does not include the investments that will have to be made in terms of infrastructure in the territory. This can be crucial in sparsely populated areas.

Relevant mutualisation in rural areas

“The mutualisation of antennas in rural areas can be a useful solution to pool investments,” observe MPs Laure de La Raudière and Eric Bothorel, who submitted a report on 23 January on the mobile and digital coverage of the territory. The aim is to avoid a digital divide between rural and urban areas, even though specific obligations are already included in the 5G frequency allocation process.

One of the keys to this subject will depend on the outcome of the frequency allocation procedure, which began on 31 December 2019. Because if each operator is expected to get back a block of frequencies sold at a fixed price, the battle will be fiercer for blocks at variable prices. Even if it has been ensured that one operator cannot take all the money, winners and losers may emerge.

5G: What if the operators join forces? Orange is open at id.

Several uses of 5G are identified // Source: Arcep

The pooling of 5G networks in France has been under consideration for several years. In autumn 2018, the telecoms regulator launched work in this direction and in its decision specifying the obligations that operators will have to comply with in order to obtain 5G frequencies, this prospect was again mentioned, particularly in rural areas.

“In order to take into account the low population density in certain areas of the territory, particularly in the communes of the “white zones – town centres” programme […], the rate set by the obligation can be reached in these areas by means of frequency pooling between all the winners“, writes the telecoms authority, provided that it validates the requests to this effect.

As the regulator also reminds us, this pooling of networks – i.e. infrastructures – can take place with or without pooling of frequencies. In the first case, each operator operates its own separately. In the second, they are pooled “with a view to their combined operation“, which results in “higher throughput” for the customers of these operators.

  • Read: What is the 5G calendar in France?

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