France may get faster mobile broadband than other countries

But modem technology would have to be improved, according to Qualcomm

French Internet users in rural areas may end up getting faster mobile broadband than other parts of the world, after a minister said that operators would be allowed to buy more spectrum.

Last week, Éric Besson, minister of Industry, Energy and the Digital Economy, said that the country's mobile operators would be allowed to buy up to two 15MHz channels of spectrum -- one for data downloads and one for uploads -- in the 800MHz band, which will be sold in an upcoming 4G auction.

That sets it apart from other European countries, including Sweden and Germany, where operators are only able to buy two channels of 10MHz. In the U.S., Verizon Wireless also uses two channels of 10MHz for its LTE (Long Term Evolution) network. Larger chunks of spectrum mean operators can offer faster speeds, in the same way a road with three lanes can handle more traffic than one with two lanes.

For the faster speeds to become a reality operators have to be willing to buy that amount of spectrum, while networks and modems would have to be able to handle the wider channels. Unsurprisingly, operators are keeping mum about their plans. Orange can't comment formally on the upcoming LTE auctions at the present time, a spokesman said via e-mail.

Current radio base stations for LTE are compatible with the wider channels, according to a spokeswoman at Ericsson.

However, modems will be more challenging. Using larger channels in the 800MHz band would require advances in radio-frequency components technology, according to Qualcomm, which makes the chipsets that go into, for example, USB modems. Such performance improvements are not expected in the short and medium term, since they would require improvement of several orders of magnitude compared to the performance of current components, it said.

The 800MHz band is very attractive to operators, because its signal propagation provides good indoor coverage and can also be used to expand broadband coverage to rural areas. Today, LTE needs 20MHz channels to perform at its best. But that is only available to operators in higher bands, including 2.6GHz -- though that band does not have the same range and indoor coverage as the 800MHz band.

So, having more spectrum may not pay off immediately. But as components evolve that may change. Also, next generation mobile networks will allow operators to use a technology called carrier aggregation to bunch together spectrum in different bands and use them as one data link.

The 1.8GHz band is being pushed by some as an alternative that could offer users and operators a good compromise of speed and coverage.

Caps on the amount of spectrum operators can buy are being put in place to ensure a competitive market. Whether France, in the end, chooses a 15MHz cap over 10MHz remains to be seen. The auction's final details will be announced later this month, according to a spokesman at local regulator ARCEP.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com

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Mikael Ricknäs

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