US starts edging towards mid-band spectrum release

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released a statement all the telcos have been waiting for; there is finally going to be a spectrum auction for the 3.5 GHz band.

The telcos will have to wait more than year to access the valuable spectrum assets, though the FCC team will hope to discuss rules and procedures to carve up the much-desired mid-band spectrum next June. The auction will likely be later in the year or early 2021, though it is evidence of the slow-moving wheels of progress.

“Making more spectrum available for the commercial marketplace is a central plank of the Commission’s 5G FAST strategy,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a blog post.

“We’ve already completed two spectrum auctions this year and will begin a third on December 10. And at our September meeting, we will vote to seek comment on draft procedures for an auction of 70 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band to begin on June 25, 2020.”

For the telcos, this will be welcome news. The US has largely focused on high-frequency spectrum bands, the mmWave assets, though commentators have suggested this has not been able to deliver the desired experience for 5G connectivity. High speeds might be achievable, however there is a serious compromise to be made on the coverage maps.

This is where the European telcos are reaping the benefits. Most of the 5G launches have been based on mid-band spectrum, striking what is a much more palatable balance between increased speeds and reasonable coverage. This coverage can later be supplemented by higher frequency connectivity to add additional speeds in the future, though the 100+ Mbps speeds should be more than enough for the moment.

“The 3.5 GHz band is prime spectrum for 5G services,” Pai said. “But when I became Chairman, we didn’t have the right rules in place to encourage the deployment of 5G in the band.

“That’s why I asked Commissioner O’Rielly to lead our effort to adopt targeted updates to the licensing and technical rules for the 3.5 GHz band with the aim of promoting more investment and innovation.”

Alongside frequencies in the 3.5 GHz band, the FCC is also considering new procedures to free-up more spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz frequency range. Currently being used for video, this band will offer much more opportunity than the 70 MHz being released for auction in the 3.5 GHz band.

Although the mmWave frequencies will be critical in delivering the promised speeds for the 5G era, it does look like the US has gone the long-way around delivering the foundations for 5G. European telcos and regulators have generally prioritised mid-band spectrum, allowing for a 5G-ish experience on current network densities, with the long-term ambition of supplementing with higher frequencies.

This approach seems to be a much more reasonable one. It creates a foundation layer, with coverage maps consumers have come to expect, though speeds can grow as adoption increases and applications emerge which require the ridiculous speeds which are being promised.

With these auctions promised by the FCC, the US is heading in the right direction, albeit, quite slowly.

Ericsson, Intel and Telstra do commercial 5G over licensed 3.5 GHz

The trend of networking vendors, modem makers and mobile operators combining to demo commercial 5G continues with Ericsson, Intel and Telstra doing their thing over 3.5 GHz.

Each new demo claims an important incremental step towards doing 5G in real life and this one was no exception. This ménage a trois has already yielded a demo designed to show how great for long-distance gaming 5G will be and more recently the three took part in a bit of multi-vendor lab-based action in Stockholm.

This time they went back to Telstra’s 5G Innovation Centre (pictured) and the most significant bit seems to have been the claimed completion of ‘the first end-to-end 5G non-standalone data call on a commercial mobile network’. It was done on Telstra’s licensed 3.5 GHz spectrum, using Ericsson radio, baseband and packet core and Intel’s 5G mobile trial platform.

“Demonstrating this 5G data call end-to-end using my own personal SIM card on Telstra’s mobile network is the closest any provider has come to making a ’true’ 5G call in the real world-environment, and marks another 5G first for Telstra,” said Telstra’s Group Managing Director for Networks, Mike Wright.

“We’re quickly moving towards 5G commercial reality,” said Fredrik Jejdling, Head of Networks at Ericsson. “Achieving the first commercial data call with our partners Telstra and Intel shows the progress we’ve made from testing the technology in a lab to a 5G commercial network environment. 5G is open for business and Ericsson is helping customers get it done.” Someone from Intel said much the same, but with Intel replacing Ericsson in the quote.

Meanwhile Samsung unveiled some 5G kit for 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz, according to a report from ZDNet. Apparently the Korean tech giant want to grab 20% of the global network kit market, which is quite a jump from its current 3%. Samsung seems to think all the aggro ZTE and Huawei are having to deal with in the US might give it the opportunity it needs.

Another report from Bloomberg, however, begs to differ. An exec from SK Telecom indicated there is no favouritism towards Samsung and Huawei seems to think thinks like price competitiveness are more important than US security concerns. Ericsson and Nokia, while presumably alarmed by Samsung’s ambitions, must be pleased to see Huawei declared at its main competitive target.