Author: Antoine Sciberras, Malta Communications Authority
Radio Spectrum – Connectivity’s scarce resource
“The EU’s goal is for Europe to be the most connected continent by 2030”. Such is the ambition set out by Europe as it makes its first steps along the Path to the Digital Decade, the European Commission’s plan for the digital transformation of Europe’s society and the economy by 2030.
Beyond long-term ambitions, investment in connectivity also features prominently as an immediate need to keep Europe connected through the COVID-19 pandemic and fuel its economic recovery. Amongst the various initiatives, ubiquitous connectivity through the fifth generation of mobile technologies, or 5G, takes central stage. 5G holds the promise of revolutionising mobile connectivity beyond the traditional coverage and capacity paradigm and truly delivering on the connectivity of things. The line-up of 5G use cases includes connected and automated mobility, e-health, smart cities, immersive entertainment and smart manufacturing amongst others.
5G also presents new challenges. It places unprecedented demands on wireless connectivity’s most valuable and scarce resource, the radio spectrum. It also introduces further complexity in the connectivity value chain with the role of intermediaries who, along with traditional network operators, repackage and customise connectivity to the needs of particular economic and industrial sectors or verticals.
Towards spectrum efficency and effective use – the enabling policy framework
In December 2018 the EU adopted new telecom rules aimed at modernising the European regulatory framework for electronic communications. These rules place renewed emphasis on the shared use of radio spectrum. From a regulatory viewpoint, spectrum sharing can be achieved by allowing the collective use of spectrum, whereby multiple users can share the resource simultaneously without requiring a licence. Whilst such an approach guarantees high efficiencies, interference may impair effective use. Alternatively or in addition, different users can be granted individual rights to access a shared frequency band and coordinate time and location requirements with a view of addressing interference.
Such approaches sit alongside spectrum which is not shared and which is granted through individual and exclusive rights of use. This provides regulatory guarantees against interference at the expense of spectrum efficiency, which can however be mitigated through the trading or leasing of assigned but unused spectrum.
In the pursuit of an optimal balancing act between spectrum efficiency and effective use, collaboration in research and development projects which explore innovative and dynamic spectrum solutions, including those enabled by artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies is necessary.
Towards a dynamic spectrum marketplace – the 5GZORRO approach
5GZORRO, a project which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme establishes a digital marketplace where participants can trade 5G-related resources, including spectrum, based on dynamic commercial needs and in a zero-touch, secure and trusted way. 5GZORRO establishes trusted relationships between the various
participants along the 5G value chain, including users within industry verticals, intermediaries, network operators and the spectrum regulator through the use of Blockchain. Distributed ledger technologies such as Blockchain implement a decentralised form of database which offers a secure and transparent way of validating and recording data.
More specifically, Blockchain does not request trust a priori between the involved parties and can be used to automate the building of contracts governing the commercial transactions taking place on the platform and which may be given legal status. This allows for resources traded and stored in the blockchain, including spectrum rights of use, to be given the legal status of a commercial contract as well as the typical regulatory obligations associated with the use of spectrum.
The use of Blockchain and smart contracts delivers the added benefit of simplifying the regulatory oversight of highly dynamic spectrum transactions, such as those which one might come across in a light-licensing scenario where time and location specific spectrum rights of use change very frequently. Oversight is facilitated by the transparency and traceability of transactions captured onto the Blockchain. Moreover, distributed ledgers ensure the availability of reliable data, stored in a highly resilient decentralised environment and according to rules which are equally applied to all users.
5GZORRO also implements Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques to select the most appropriate resource from the catalogue of offers and to subsequently deploy and implement the resource configuration. Such an approach offers dynamic access to specific resources at the location and for the duration necessary, speeding up the execution of both business and operational transactions. From a spectrum management standpoint, AI techniques adopted in combination with database technologies such as distributed-ledgers and implementing sensing techniques for service-level assurance, may potentially improve the efficiency and effectiveness of shared spectrum use, whilst implementing compliance by design.
Fundamentally, 5GZORRO implements advanced business logic, AI and distributed ledger techniques to enable a marketplace where 5G-related resources can be traded securely amongst diverse but trusted stakeholders, based on market-driven business models to meet dynamic supply and demand. In this respect, it promotes the development of a freely competitive market but also implements the controls necessary to allow for regulatory oversight and intervention as may be necessary.
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