Russia to play a big role in Estonia's 5G future

Russia is using critical frequency bands for the development of Estonia's 5G network for TV and satellite communications. Estonia, along with many other Eastern European countries, has discussed releasing the frequency bands with Russia for years, but so far they have not budged.

The arguments over how to distribute the most optimal frequency for 5G among telecomms operators seems to have no end in sight. But there is also a far more complicated international question left to solve.

The higher part of the 3400-3800 MHz frequency range is actively in use in Russia. This means that any sort of relay over these ranges is not permissible to reach over the borders of Russia.

Erko Kulu, head of frequency services at the Republic of Estonia Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority told ERR that Russia is mainly using the ranges for satellite communications.

"In accordance with International Telecommunication Union (ITU) regulations, that frequency is indeed meant for satellite communications. Developing mobile communications in that range is actually a European regulation. In that sense, Russia isn't doing anything wrong," Kulu said.

Estonia is not standing in front of this problem alone. Almost every country on Europe's Eastern border has asked Russia for permission to use the frequencies. CEO of Levikom, Peep Põldsamm said that the countries have tried both individually and together to solve the problem through the European Commission, but to no avail.

"Finns have managed to sign an indefinite and nonconcrete agreement of common intentions with the Russian Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media. But Russia itself is having problems with it, because the range is mostly used by military applications," Kulu added.

If Russia does decide to meet their neighboring telecomms companies halfway, it has to make large investments to reconfigure its satellites.

Russia is currently developing 5G technology on higher and lower frequencies. On the lower frequencies, speeds and volume decrease, on higher frequencies it is the broadcast range. In addition, the non-standard solution comes at additional cost their telecomms operators.

"In the long-term, we can't really predict which developments are made. Maybe in ten years Russia will also have mobile communications in that range, but that is hard to predict today," Kulu said.

Another competition for 5G frequency ranges has faltered

The state of other critical frequencies for Estonia is also unpredictable. Just this past year, the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications hoped to announce a contest, which would allocate the frequency range of 694-790 MHz.

"Because the frequency is much lower, it will spread much further. It is fit to cover areas with low population with less base stations and where speed is not as important as in big cities," Kulu explained.

Chancellor Ando Leppiman of the ministry sent a letter to the European Commission, in which it was acknowledged that the contest would be delayed, because negotiations with Russia have not led them anywhere.

"In the higher parts of 700 MHz are the transmitters for the Russian State Television Broadcasting Company. Actually we were using the range for television up until 2017. We reorganized and released the frequency to prepare for a transition to mobile communications," Kulu noted.

Latvia has promised to release the frequencies from television stations by the summer of 2022.

"We could have used this frequency with perhaps a couple restrictions in South Estonia until Latvia stopped using it."

But the biggest challenge is still Russia. Estonia's neighbor to the East has firmly stated its position, of which they notified the Estonian government of in 2017. Estonia's proposal to allow for the development of networks on the same frequencies has been rejected because it would interfere with Russia's TV broadcasting.

"We do not have a single date from Russia of when they will stop using these ranges," Kulu added.

As is the case with higher frequencies, Estonia deos not stand alone. On the one hand, it gives the country more power in negotiations, on the other hand it makes it more complicated to come up with a solution.

"For Russia, reorganization of the border's ranges means huge investments. And until they have exclusive rights, they will meet their own needs," Kulu noted.

Russia's own interests could be hope for Estonia's 5G networks

So it seems that Estonia's hope is not in its Eastern neighbor's goodwill, but rather in its interest in 5G themselves. This is why Estonia is not rushing the competition to distribute 700 MHz ranges and expects the winds of Russia to shift.

"We can actually see that there have been changes made in Russia as well. When previously they had only used the ranges for TV, but now mobile communications operators are also interested in the range. Perhaps it is possible to reach agreements there, but no guarantees," Kulu said.

He said that the countries are in official correspondence with each other daily, but actual discussions and meetings happen less often. Following meetings in 2015 and 2017, a virtual meeting was held at the end of 2019. The Russian delegation was supposed to visit Tallinn this spring, but that was canceled due to the coronavirus. A potential meeting for this year is still unconfirmed.

Russia potentially staying true to its previous stances does not mean that the development of 5G in Estonia will stop. Some parts of frequency ranges can be used without permission. Erko Kulu added that 3600-3800 MHz could be used indoors and to make local networks.

"Potentially West Estonia as well, depending on the height and power of masts. Perhaps we can talk about East Estonia, but that depends on the configuration of base stations. We coordinate each situation separately."

Same with the 700 MHz frequency range.

"We can potentially use the frequency out West, the East will depend completely on mobile communications parameters. There are some opportunities there, but the long-term solution is still that Russia would use the ranges for mobile communications," Kulu concluded.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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