Monday 8 June 2020

Too many hurdles for 5G in Belgium

Belgium’s mobile market is served by the three network operators Proximus, Orange Belgium and Telenet (BASE) and by a number of MVNOs. Mobile networks have been upgraded with LTE technology to support growing mobile data use among subscribers, while operators have also trialled 5G in preparation for launching services in 2020 and 2021. However, the auction of 5G-suitable spectrum has been delayed indefinitely, while the onerous restrictions on radiation have meant that some 5G trials have been suspended.

The market continues to be transformed, particularly with MVNOs shifting between networks. The government is keen to set the framework which could enable a new player to enter the market in 2020 following the award of spectrum in the 3.5GHz and other bands earmarked for 5G services. Existing operators are opposed to such a move, citing harsh competitive conditions and pressure on both revenue and investment in the sector. A characteristic of the market is customer preference for quad-play services, and to this end MNOs are strengthening their fixed-line offerings. In this landscape the mobile-only provides will struggle to gain customers in coming years.

Belgian telecom regulator BIPT has granted temporary 5G licences to Proximus, Cegeka, Entropia, Telenet and Orange Belgium. Each of them have received 40 MHz in the 3600-3800 MHz frequency band. The temporary 5G licences will remain valid until the 5G auction, delayed indefinitely in Belgium due to a disagreement between regional governments over proceedings.

The three providers use 800 Mhz, 1800 MHz and 2600 MHz bands and offer 4G/LTE to their prepaid customers and most MVNOs. Proximus and Orange cover 100% of the population and 99% of the territory, Base slightly less (98% of the population and 90% of the territory).

In the recent Open Signal report Proximus won four of the national awards and drew for the fifth, while the operator claimed two-thirds of our regional medals. Proximus passed 90% 4G Availability in their measurements — the first time they have seen a Belgian operator pass this milestone on a national level — while all three operators were over the 90% 4G Availability mark in the Brussels region.

Orange managed to draw with Proximus for their national 4G Availability award, while Telenet had to settle for just a few draws in the regional metrics. However Telenet has seen some of the best improvement in its scores over the past six months, particularly in the 4G Availability measurements.

Proximus, originally Belgacom, is the incumbent, State-owned operator and still the market leader in Belgium with the best overall coverage in the country on 2G, 3G and 4G. They were the first to introduce 4G/LTE in 2012, now included in all prepaid offers and cover 100% of the population in 2017 and 99% of the territory. Their services are usually a bit more expensive than Orange and Base.
Effective 2014 the capable iPhones of Apple are now supported on the 1800 MHz frequency of LTE as well. Accelerated LTE+ has been introduced to major cities, but is not available on prepaid yet. All allowances can be used in the EU without surcharges.

Proximus is the first operator to launch a 5G network in the country – but it will be available mainly in Dutch-speaking areas. That’s because the authorities in French-speaking Wallonia and multilingual Brussels, the capital, have imposed restrictions on transmission levels. Flanders, the Belgian province where most people speak Dutch – or Flemish – have more liberal rules. According to weekend reports, the only French-speaking towns and cities to be covered by the initial service will be Charleroi and areas between Liège and Namur.

The first places to be covered will include Antwerp, Bruges, Leuven, Mechelen and Ostend, all largely Dutch-speaking.

In an interview earlier this year Werner De Laet, chief enterprise officer for innovation and wholesale at Orange Belgium, told Capacity of the challenges of designing 5G networks in Brussels and Wallonia – because of restrictions imposed long before today’s misinformed 5G paranoia. Flanders allows a radiation level of 20.6V/m, though the limit on each antenna is 3V/m, he told Capacity. In comparison, in Brussels there is a total limit of just 6V/m.

Orange was previously known as Mobistar until May 2016, when it started to operate under the brand of its parent company, Orange France. Orange's/Mobistar's 4G/LTE has started in 2014 and now covers 100% of the population and 99% of the territory. It's considered by the Belgian telecommunications regulator to be on par with that of Proximus in terms of coverage.
4G is available to all prepaid costumers without surcharge: coverage map. Orange's 3G network is on par with that of Base and nearly as good as Proximus. In 2017, Orange scrapped all surcharges for roaming in the EU.

Base was taken over from KPN by Telenet in 2017. They have excellent coverage in the Flanders (Dutch speaking part) including Brussels. In Wallonia (French speaking part) there is less coverage in the more remote area's. This network hosts most of the MVNOs in Belgium. Their 2G covers 99.9%, 3G 99.5% and 4G/LTE 90% of the population at the end of 2015.

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