Schoolar: Spectrum is the real game changer when it comes to 5G

Spectrum of course is always central to wireless communications. Spectrum dictates network coverage and capacity. It is essentially the road in which everything runs across. And, it is something that mobile operators want more of.

With 5G the dynamics around spectrum will drastically change. Depending on where an operator is located today spectrum options run as low as the 450 MHz band up to the 3.5 GHz band. 5G, as it has been well document, will expand spectrum options greatly. Spectrum options being discussed have 5G working all the way up towards the 90 GHz range. This spectrum range will dramatically increase network capacity.

Capacity here, however, isn’t just about network speeds. It is also about the network having the ability to offer more types of services. Take for example the fixed wireless access (FWA) which both AT&T and Verizon are looking at with their early 5G trials. Those trials are testing 5G in spectrum bands well above 6GHz that have provide 100 MHz of capacity and are also unencumbered with mobile traffic. Those are two things that an operator would be hard pressed to do with LTE, which can also be used for FWA. That is just one example of how operators will be able to dedicated large swaths of spectrum to different applications.

Another real intriguing aspect of 5G spectrum is the addition of shared, lightly licensed, or even fully unlicensed spectrum. For example, in the US the FCC made a new rule in July opening up 11 GHz of spectrum above the 24 GHz band, for 5G deployments. The newly freed spectrum includes 3.85 GHz of licensed spectrum in 28 GHz (27.5–28.35 GHz), 37 GHz (37–38.6 GHz), and 39 GHz (38.6–40 GHz) bands as well as 7 GHz of unlicensed spectrum from 64-71 GHz. In separate action the FCC also made 150 MHz of shared spectrum available in the 3.5 GHz band. 3.5 GHz isn’t specifically dedicated for 5G, but there is no restriction on 5G in that band either.

These new bands open up 5G to new classes of users. Utilities could build their own wireless networks without having to purchase spectrum. Cable companies that seem to be on an endless quest to have a wireless play, could have more options with 5G. As for base station vendors who are all trying to become less dependent on their traditional communications service provider customers, this has to be music to their ears. Device vendors have to pleased too as new class of operators could also mean new classes of devices needing 5G radios.

One major concern with all of this in my opinion is that there hasn’t been global agreement on 5G spectrum yet. That won’t take place until WRC-19 meets in 2019. By then I suspect other countries will follow the FCC’s lead and designate their own 5G spectrum. This could lead to a real fracturing of 5G spectrum with different regions all having their own requirements. Network and device vendors would be then put in the position of having to decide which bands to support and which ones to not support. We saw how that played out here in the US with some 700 MHz bands getting support while other holders of 700 MHz struggling to find end-user devices.  If the standardization process of 5G is speeding up so too should the spectrum allocation for 5G. The industry can’t wait until 2019 to know what is and isn’t’ a 5G band. There is too much momentum behind 5G to wait for WRC-19.  WRC-19 is on the cusp of being irrelevant, and merely a rubber stamping exercise of what others have done.

Daryl Schoolar is Principal Analyst of Wireless Infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas, but how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him at @DHSchoolar.