Orange Espana has announced its plans for activation of 5G services on the 700 MHz band, describing the network as the largest 5G-700MHz network in Spain.
The 700 MHz band, already used by some operators for 4G, has the benefit of enabling good penetration inside buildings and good coverage with speeds comparable to those of mono-band 4G.
A few weeks after Vodafone said it would reach 109 localities by the end of the year, Orange responded that it will cover 1,100 towns and cities with the technology by December, including around 140 digital divide localities with less than 1,000 inhabitants.
The rollout will also include 140 towns and cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants and 820 localities with between 1,000 and 50,000 inhabitants across 30 provinces. Benefits of the 700 MHz band frequencies include lower latencies plus significantly better coverage in indoor and larger outdoor areas, said the operator.
Orange activated its first 5G antenna for the 700 MHz band at Valencia’s Polytechnic University last September, having switched on its Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G network in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville and Malaga the previous year.
The launch comes after Orange paid EUR 350 million for a 2×10 MHz block in the government’s July 2021 auction of frequencies in the 700 MHz band. Orange has the largest amount of 5G-compatible spectrum in Spain thanks to its existing 110 MHz concession in the 3.5 GHz band, for which it paid EUR 173 million.
As of 30 September 2021, Orange Espana offered 5G coverage to over 50% of the population and had 620,000 5G subscriptions.
At the 5G Core Summit 2019 in Madrid, Orange España’s Head of Product Engineering-Tomas Alonso said his company was taking its time to deploy “5G,” despite pressure from other telcos, like Vodafone-Spain and Telefónica Móviles. During his conference session titled Orange Spain on the Road to 5G, Alonso said that 5G technology is still not mature enough to make any real difference to customers and Spanish authorities are not helping operators deploy it.
Obviously that’s true, because all pre-standard 5G deployments use LTE signaling/control plane and mobile packet core (5G NSA). Also there is no ultra low latency in 3GPP Rel 15 5G NR. More on this 5G core topic below.
“I would summarize our work in two words; testing and learning. We do not launch the technology because of the technology. We launch the technology to offer a better customer experience,” said Alfonso.
Orange Spain is currently trialing 5G at various locations throughout the country, though there are no plans to speed up the commercial launch, which is currently set for some point in 2020.
Spanish wireless network operators also lack sufficient spectrum they need to provide a high-quality 5G service. Spain held its 5G auction way back in July 2018, when Orange collected 60 MHz of spectrum in the 3.6GHz-3.8GHz band. The trouble, it seems, is that telcos’ band plans look like a piano with missing keys.
“In almost all cases, the spectrum is allocated in different packets,” said Alonso. “We need to do some shuffling to have contiguous bands so that we can provide the best experience in 5G.”
“The earliest date [for an auction] is the first half of next year,” Alonso added. That spectrum will be needed for “effective and efficient” mobile rollouts, he said.
Equally important, Alonso believes the 5G network equipment currently available remains “too heavy” and too power-hungry. “To be efficient, we need to wait a bit more and then have a better ROI [return on investment] when we deploy the network,” he said. There will be a stronger business case for 5G deployment when the equipment has been improved.
Also, Orange Spain’s wireless backhaul infrastructure must be upgraded, with more fiber optics urgently needed. Orange is leveraging its investments in fiber-to-the-home networks — which today reaches more than 14 million Spanish households — and extending fiber optics links to mobile sites. But the job is not yet nearly completed.
As for the scarcity of “5G” devices: “They are all very high end today and [each] costs more than €1,000 [$1,100],” said Alonso. None is yet available that supports the “standalone” (SA) version of 5G, which uses a new 5G core network in conjunction with the 5G NR technology.
As the IMT 2020 standard is over one year away from completion, there is no European operator that can deploy a 5G mobile packet core. In the meantime, operators are deploying services based on the “non-standalone” (NSA) system, which hitches the 5G New Radio to an existing 4G core. Alonso does not sound overly impressed. “So far, we have completely defined the enhanced mobile broadband [eMBB] functionality and in the second and third steps there will be newer standards for latency and mobile IoT [the Internet of Things],” he said. “Standalone will be mature in a matter of months … The real technology that will provide all the promises of 5G is not here.”
Orange Espagne S.A.U., more commonly known by its trade name of Orange España, is a mobile network operator in Spain. It was previously known as Amena, a brand of Retevisión, (Amena means pleasant in an amusing way in Spanish) until 2005, when it was bought by France Télécom (now Orange S.A.)
According to Alonso, the biggest challenge is to change how the company works. “The way we deliver value to customers will be completely different from the way we deliver value to customers with current technology and so we are spending a lot of time on that,” he said. That overhaul appears to involve setting up dedicated 5G teams within the company and breaking down some of the silos that currently separate technical and commercial departments.
A further requirement is for some type of certifications process for security of 5G technology.(from device to access network to mobile packet core to edge network to ISP/content provider point of presence) That’s endeavor is made much more difficult with no de facto or de jure 5G security standard (the work in ITU-T on IMT 2020 security is in its infancy). “Security is something we talk about a lot, but we need the sector to complete the analysis to have certifications,” said Alonso. “That is something we need in the short term.”
–>As Vodafone and other telcos race to deploy pre-standard 5G, the lack of any security system is a huge weakness, in this author’s opinion.
Network sharing is another important issue which the Orange Spain team will have to consider. This will probably not prevent the telco from launching 5G services, though it will impact the rollout strategy. Reports have emerged suggesting the team is in conversation with Telefonica and MásMóvil over sharing non-critical 5G sites. The idea of network sharing is becoming increasingly popular with telcos around the world, and it is easy to see why. During her own presentation, Lucy Lombardi of Telecom Italia quoting research from McKinsey, suggesting network sharing agreements could save as much as 40% of deployments costs for a telco. 5G is going to be a very expensive business, and any opportunity to reduce the financial burden will be strongly considered.
Some might disagree with the position of Orange Spain, but being first doesn’t necessarily mean best. Orange has shown itself to be one of the more considered, long term focused and successful telcos in Europe in recent years, so it would be quite reasonable to have confidence in the team.