MTS has become the latest operator to join the Russian joint venture (JV), New Digital Solutions, focussing on the best way to free up spectrum for 5G services

Today, MTS has become the latest mobile operator to join New Digital Solutions, taking a 25% stake in the business alongside its mobile rivals Rostelecom, MegaFon, and Vimpelcom.

The move means that all four of Russia’s largest mobile operators are now equal partners in the JV, which aims to explore the viability and availability of various spectrum bands for 5G services.

The history of New Digital Solutions begins back in 2017, when MegaFon and Rostelecom first set up a working group to explore the future of 5G technology in the 3.4-3.6GHz and 26GHz frequency bands. 

A year later, the pair formed a JV, Digital for Business LLC, saying that it would continue the companies’ 5G frequency research, ultimately aiming to build its own 5G that would then be offered to other Russian operators on a wholesale basis. 

Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) had approved the formation of the JV on the condition that it would allow non-discriminatory access to radio frequencies for all participants in the Russian mobile market, therefore maintaining healthy competition. 

Digital for Business LLC was renamed as New Digital Solutions in 2019.

At the start of 2021, Vimplecom joined the JV, taking an equal stake in the business, saying that Russia was lagging behind the global 5G trend and that “even large operators cannot solve these problems alone”.

“The lack of frequencies suitable for creating 5G networks in Russia is one of the most significant constraints. The JV has a very large amount of work ahead of releasing radio frequency resources, taking into account the whole range of issues – regulatory, organisational, technical, economic,” explained Rostelecom president Mikhail Oseevsky at the time. 

“The result of the work of the [JV] should be an objective full-fledged picture of the frequency resource available for the construction of fifth-generation networks in Russia. These data will allow for more informed decisions both for the state at all levels of regulation and for mobile operators to build an effective business based on new generation networks.”

This left MTS, Russia’s largest mobile operator, as the only significant mobile player without a piece of New Digital Solutions, something which it quickly indicated it would seek to rectify. Now, with all four operators on board, New Digital Solutions should have all the expertise it needs for better understanding the future of Russian 5G spectrum.

So far, however, despite roughly four years of research by the new JV, launching nationwide 5G services in Russia remains something of a technical quagmire, with much of the optimal spectrum already occupied by various other services. 

In December 2019, Rostelecom, MegaFon, VimpelCom, and MTS agreed to clear the spectrum in the 700 MHz, 3.4–3.8 GHz, 4.4–4.99 GHz, and 24.25–29.5 GHz bands in preparation for reassignment for 5G services. However, many of these spectrum bands are contentious; for example, the Security Council of the Russian Federation says that part of the 3.4–3.8 GHz band is currently used for government services, while portions of the 4.4–4.99 GHz band are currently used by the Federal Protective Service (FSO), the Federal Air Transport Agency, the Ministry of Defense, and the Russian space agency, Roskosmos.

As a result, the JV’s focus has been largely on testing for electromagnetic compatibility, conducting research on frequencies suitability for delivering 5G services, and clearing existing spectrum bands. 

It remains unclear whether New Digital Solutions still intends to rollout its own network infrastructure in future.  

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