With just a week to go for 5G auctions, State railway corporations of Gujarat, the National Capital Region, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Kerala have written to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) seeking spectrum in the crucial 700 MHz band. This band is considered ideal for offering 5G services but it has remained unsold in the last two rounds of auction due to its high price.

With the 700MHz band expected to remain unsold for the third time in the upcoming 5G auctions, the regulator had been mulling assigning it to State railway organisations to set up railway networks. Operators such as Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and BSNL have raised objections citing that this spectrum should be reserved for IMT (5G) purposes given the scarcity of the band. 

Why it is important

700MHz is a key frequency band for indoor and long distance 5G coverage, and it is also going to be a crucial band to set up mature (standalone) 5G networks. Experts believe the band is likely to remain unsold in the upcoming auctions as well, given that only Reliance Jio is likely to place a bid for this band in the upcoming auctions.

Although the Centre has 45MHz of spectrum in this band, 10 MHz has been reserved for the government and 5MHz has already been assigned to Indian Railways. Therefore, there is only 30 MHz left for now. Each operator needs 15MHz at least to provide long distance and indoor 5G coverage.

BusinessLine had reported previously that while TRAI was open to exploring other spectrum bands for the railway corporations to set up their LTE network, the regulator also noted that leaving 700MHz spectrum idle any longer would be an economic loss to the nation.

NCRTC request

TRAI’s consultation paper came in response to the National Capital Region Transport Corporation requesting 5MHz of spectrum for their use. NCRTC believed that Regional Rapid Transit Systems (State rail companies) also needed this spectrum for their voice, data and video requirements. Given the adoption of driverless technology and live CCTV in these rail networks, this spectrum would be highly necessary. 

Arguments for giving the spectrum away to other State corporations include better coverage and reduced capex costs of 700MHz as well as existing availability of vendor ecosystem which will ease deployment. Moreover, given that Indian Railways was already assigned 5MHz in this band previously, there will also be economies of scale in deploying railway network in this band. All the five rail corporations agree that these are valid reasons for the regulator to consider utilising this band for railways. The corporations also note that Regional Rail Transporation Systems and Metro Rails should be assigned 5MHz of spectrum in this band, which is why they believe the regulator should approve the NCRTC’s formal request. 

State rail companies mostly agree they can share this 5MHz of spectrum provided their rail networks are not in geographically overlapping areas. If regulator agrees to this request and Reliance Jio bids for 700MHz now, both Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea could lose out with limited 700MHz to buy in later auctions.

Operators remain unanimous that the 700MHz band would serve a far more crucial purpose if it was utilised for 5G. Reliance Jio noted that the TRAI could explore the already assigned 5MHz to the Indian Railways for the purpose of setting up RRTS corridors for State rail corporations.