Monday 16 September 2019

Fastweb and the Shared 5G Network in Italy

Fastweb, an Italian subsidiary of Swisscom since 2007, was already a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), but now the company will run its own infrastructure-based network and following approval from the Ministry of Economic Development become the fifth mobile operator in Italy, building and marketing their own 5G services. The operator has 2.6 million broadband customers but only 1.6 million subscribers to its mobile services.

Having acquired Tiscali SpA 's fixed-wireless business and full ownership of its 5G-friendly 3.5GHz spectrum and 835 of their towers in a deal worth around €150 million (US$176 million).  Since December 2016 Fastweb has had the right to use 3.5GHz spectrum in the main Italian cities and allows them to provide fixed-wireless connectivity to all market segments in Italy.

In July 2019 Fastweb announced a network-sharing deal with CK Hutchison’s Wind Tre “to accelerate the roll-out of a nationwide, state-of-the art 5G network”. Fastweb said then that “the shared 5G network will include Wind Tre and Fastweb macro and small cells, connected through dark fibre from Fastweb, to be deployed nationwide, with a targeted coverage of 90% of the population by 2026”.

As a result Fastweb will be able to compete with TIM and Vodafone as well as with Wind Tre, and with French-owned Iliad, which started up in the market when Wind – then owned by Veon – merged with Hutch’s Tre.

Due to the astronomical prices of spectrum licenses and fighting competition on all sides, Italy's telecom operators are increasingly engaging in network-sharing partnerships as they roll out their new 5G services. Network sharing is hardly a new thing in Europe, of course, and has already taken off in Italy. Under competitive and regulatory pressure, Telecom Italia and Vodafone are sharing mobile towers and will even use the same 5G basestations outside the big cities. Across the entire European region, market dynamics are spurring interest in similar arrangements.But Fastweb and Wind Tre are going much further.

The two operators are pooling spectrum resources and site equipment to build a single 5G network that each will use to provide retail services to its customers. If the scheme works, it may validate network slicing, an advanced technique that allows operators to run different "virtualized" network services over the same physical infrastructure. It could even become the preferred model for other European operators struggling to fund the deployment of 5G networks. It will also allow Fastweb to deploy 40MHz of 3.5GHz spectrum acquired in a private transaction last year. Adding this to Wind Tre's 20MHz they hope this will give the operators the means to challenge Telecom Italia and Vodafone.

The details of their approach, confirmed by a Fastweb spokesperson, mean each company will effectively become a virtual operator of a shared 5G platform. While some of the commercial arrangements are still unclear, the companies will use the same mobile sites and network equipment across the entire country. The first 5G services are scheduled to arrive next year. By 2024, Fastweb and Wind Tre expect to have nationwide coverage.
Fastweb believe network slicing can overcome much of the concern about control and efficiency. This untried technology, which is due to be standardized in future 5G releases, usually attracts attention as a means of guaranteeing service levels for different enterprise customers. To Fastweb, it is above all a way to guarantee service independence from Wind Tre on a shared 5G network. "Thanks to the slicing capabilities of 5G, both Fastweb and Wind Tre will have complete end-to-end control on our virtual networks," said Fastweb's spokesperson. "This agreement allows us to achieve the utmost level of synergies and efficiency in the deployment, without compromising on independence and control."

Realizing this vision would mean proving that network slicing can facilitate the most extreme form of network sharing. To give itself the best chance of success, Fastweb is also developing software tools for the full automation of 5G network management. "5G is more than just a new mobile technology. It is a new way to think and develop services, processes, IT systems and networks," they say. If it can persuade the industry that a single 5G network used by multiple operators holds no major drawbacks, it could usher in a new 5G paradigm.

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