Belgium gears up to go 5G with summer spectrum auction

5G is set to roll out in Belgium by the end of 2022. Here are the opportunities it offers businesses and a look at some of the industries that stand to gain the most from 5G connectivity.


Political debate left the deployment of 5G in Belgium at a standstill for years, but the wait is coming to an end: the country is finally poised to enter the 5G market in earnest with the long-awaited allocation of 5G spectrum taking place in June 2022.

Universal 5G coverage is set to impact all sectors of the Belgian economy, with particularly noteworthy applications for the manufacturing, transport, and services sectors. The Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications (BIPT) estimates that the upcoming auction is expected to bring in €800 million in revenue, which will be placed in escrow until Belgium’s government agrees on how the money should be distributed at the federal and state level.

What is 5G?

5G, the fifth generation of mobile networks, supports more devices than previous networks, reduces latency, and increases speeds to up to 20 times over its predecessor. Its flexible architecture allows for “network slicing,” or the creation of many individual networks that can be tailored to specific needs. It enables the exchange of huge volumes of data in real time, and the data generated by smart devices can be analysed through edge computing, where data is processed and stored closer to its source to gain faster insight into usage.

What took so long?

The deployment of 5G in Belgium has been fraught with challenges over the past three years, as the European Commission’s efforts to greenlight spectrum allocations were bogged down by political debates over how to spend the revenue from the auctions. At the end of 2021, Belgium’s government finally agreed to proceed with the operator selection process and determine later how the profits would be distributed.

So far, five carriers have submitted their applications for the 5G auction coming up in June 2022, which will award licenses to create a nationwide network in the allocated frequencies. While the names of the providers have not yet been announced by BIPT, major operators Orange, Proximus, and Telenet are expected to be awarded licences, with Citymesh rounding out the fourth spot as the country’s newest 5G telecom player. The candidate for the fifth licence is yet to be determined.

After the June auction, there may be opportunities for private networks to use the 3,400 MHz - 3,800 MHz band, presenting a valuable opportunity for providers such as AWS and Cisco, which are currently unable to offer private 5G services in Belgium — subject to the issuance of a royal decree and the successful acquisition of spectrum licences.

The current state of 5G in Belgium

After the auction, the nationwide coverage of 5G will quickly gain momentum, as successful candidates will be required to provide 5G to 70% of the country’s population after one year, and 99.5% by 2023. By comparison, just 3% of Belgium was covered by 5G in 2021. To enjoy the benefits of 5G connectivity, both enterprises and the public will have to be patient as companies invest in critical network infrastructure such as advanced antenna systems.

There are a few places in Belgium where 5G is already in play. The pilot 5G programmes are primarily located near Antwerp, Leuven, and along Belgium’s coastline. Telenet has been testing 5G in Leuven for over a year, connecting the Leuven police to surveillance cameras and the KU engineering college to university buildings and student residences. Orange created a test network at Antwerp, one of Europe’s most strategically-located ports and responsible for over €18 billion in total added value every year, and offers customers 5G connectivity via the temporary 3.6 and 3.8 GHz frequency band. Several operators have set their sights on enterprise customers, with Citymesh focusing exclusively on private industrial applications and Proximus introducing an innovation platform where companies can test out potential 5G projects for a small financial investment before taking the plunge.

How will 5G converge with Wi-Fi 6?

5G is complementary to next-generation wireless connectivity such as Wi-Fi 6, where in certain cases, the two technologies are used simultaneously in indoor and business environments such as enterprises, smart cities, and industrial IoT — a major benefit for Belgium’s electronics, steel, and automobile industries. “5G is the next evolution of the cellular standard, at the same time Wi-Fi 6 is the next evolution of the Wi-Fi 802.11 standard. Both technologies are critical for the evolution of connectivity and digitalisation of the world,” says Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance.

Whereas 5G is well-suited for wide-range coverage and mobility, such as in vehicles on a highway, the next generation of Wi-Fi will offer high bandwidth connectivity in indoor environments. To achieve seamless connectivity, the two technologies must work together: “There are a few use cases relevant for mobile operators to take advantage of Wi-Fi, like offloading data from the cellular network when or where there is insufficient capacity, where there is limited cell coverage mainly indoors and, in some cases, even outdoors and where cellular signals are poor.”

Rodriques also notes that many devices are still Wi-Fi only, such as tablets, laptops, and cameras. “Our message is that the customer cares about being connected to the best-performing network at any given time on whatever device they are using. Furthermore, it is important for organisations to pay the right price for the right technology. Sometimes, it will be Wi-Fi, sometimes it will be 5G and sometimes it will be both. This becomes a harmonious reality with 5G and Wi-Fi 6/6E.”

Use cases for the industrial and service sectors

Capgemini found that 63% of businesses in Belgium are ready to implement 5G in their day-to-day operations within 1-2 years of availability. However, of industrial companies surveyed, only 30% were interested in applying for private networks, indicating that consumer confidence might have been influenced by the glacial pace of 5G roll-out nationwide. 5G offers important opportunities in the chemical, plastics, and life sciences industries, important cornerstones of Belgium’s economy that account for €61 billion annually. 5G has the power to enable real-time decision making in sensitive environments such as chemical factories, linking IoT devices to monitor equipment, assess risks, analyse products and environments, and facilitate remote operations that keep workers out of harm’s way.

Although industries such as steel, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals make up a significant proportion of Belgium’s economy, 77% of the country’s gross value added comes from services, including the country’s booming retail and financial services sector. 5G can make communication more secure and reliable, improve fraud prevention, and complete time-sensitive transactions in milliseconds.

5G will enable banks and merchants to individually tailor their customer engagement, making relevant recommendations to clients in real time. The high speed and low latency of 5G can make shopping more immersive through virtual and augmented reality experiences, truly shoppable videos, and a high level of personalisation that engages users in new ways — creating new revenue streams for enterprises.

What’s next for 5G in Belgium

The European Commission’s 5G Action Plan proposed deadlines for 5G rollout for EU member states, including commercial 5G in at least one major city by 2020, full coverage in cities and transport paths by 2025, and coverage for all populated areas by 2030. The EC estimates that 5G will contribute €1 trillion to Europe’s GDP by 2025 and create up to 20 million jobs across all sectors, including IT, logistics, manufacturing, and agriculture. However, due to the bureaucratic delays, a recent special report rated Belgium’s likelihood of achieving those objectives as “low.”

All hope is not lost — with five providers slated to bid on spectrums within the next few months and the success of pilot and testing programmes across the country’s urban centres, 2022 will likely witness the accelerated deployment of 5G network infrastructure and the rollout of services for customers and enterprises alike. While the country has lagged behind its peers, this is the year to watch and see exactly how Belgium will harness the power of 5G.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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