Despite many proclamations and posturing during the development years of 5G, mmWave is not living up to expectations, but securing valuable mid-band assets is becoming an increasingly complex project.
As it stands in the US market, T-Mobile US has access to 2.1 GHz spectrum to deliver 5G services. These assets were accessible due to the recently approved merger with Sprint and offers a significant advantage over Verizon and AT&T, both of whom are still operating in the high-frequency airwaves, the mmWave, which delivers high-speed and low coverage for an overall substandard experience.
Over the next 12-18 months, theoretically, more mid-band spectrum should be made available to the likes of Verizon and AT&T, as well as Dish as it expands its offering, through three separate spectrum auctions. However, there is still plenty which can go wrong in the meantime according to Chris Pearson, President of 5G Americas.
“If history shows us anything it is that we have not been very successful at co-operation,” Pearson said during a call with Telecoms.com.
What Pearson is referring to here is collaboration between private industry and public organisations to either harmonise spectrum usage or clearing the bands to offer more power to the mobile service providers. There are success stories, clearing the 1700-2100 MHz airwaves is one, but these outcomes are seemingly more the exception rather than the rule.
The issue with spectrum is simple. High frequencies offer exceptional download speeds but very poor coverage, while at the other end with low-frequency bands a telco can offer excellent coverage, but the download speeds and latency will be woeful. This is why mid-band assets are so important, it is a more palatable compromise between speed and coverage, a mobile experience which can be sold as an upgrade to customers.
When we asked Telecoms.com readers about how important the mid-band airwaves are 68% said without these assets it is impossible to deliver an attractive 5G service. Only 3% said the industry should be paying more attention to mmWave, and 8% believed mid-band spectrum is critical for the moment but its importance would fade behind mmWave eventually.
“Can we move along without it,” Pearson said. “Absolutely. But for the long-term we will need more spectrum.”
As Pearson highlights, there are three spectrum auctions on the horizon which are worth paying attention to. At the end of July, the ‘CBRS’ band at 3.5 GHz will make 150 MHz of spectrum available to the industry. In December, the C-Band airwaves (3.7-4.2 GHz) should be cleared up to make an additional 280 MHz of spectrum available. And the NCIA (NATO Communications and Information Agency) is currently producing a report to free up more assets in the 3.1-3.55 GHz range.
Theoretically, there should be plenty of spectrum available for the mobile network operators to deliver a comprehensive 5G solution, though this is under the assumption that everything runs smoothly.
Firstly, the ‘CBRS’ auction has already been delayed once. It should go ahead of course, but there is always a risk.
Secondly, the C-Band auction, scheduled to take place in December, is currently under threat from legal action. Several smaller satellite broadcasting companies who are being asked to vacate and/or move operations in these airwaves are kicking up a fuss. The aim is to shift the satellite operators in the 3.7-4.2 GHz range into a consolidated 200 MHz block, which would offer plenty of room for the telcos to play around it, but there are dissenters.
PSSI Global Services has filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia arguing the FCC is crippling the entire industry by forcing through the changes in this spectrum band. Should this legal challenge gather momentum or spin-off into different directions, it could impact the availability of assets in the C-Band range, and subsequently delay the auction.
The final area is another very difficult issue to manage. The report which is being produced for the 3.1-3.55 GHz range has only completed one of six sections. This report is supposed to shed light on what the spectrum is being used for, by whom and ways which it can be rationalised to add more available spectrum for mobile operators. But Pearson highlighted that progress has been sluggish.
The issue seems to be that it is difficult to understand what the spectrum is currently being used for, the incumbents are not being the most helpful as there are confidentiality hurdles to negotiate. No-one officially knows what this spectrum is actually being used for which usually means it is something to do with the military or intelligence services.
Without co-operation from the incumbents, it becomes very difficult to audit these airwaves and create a logical strategy to move forward.
To understand the importance of mid-band spectrum, it is worth looking at the experience being delivered without access.
According to OpenSignal’s most recent analysis of the US market, Verizon is delivering speeds few other international telcos can compete with over mmWave, but this digital dream is only accessible to 0.5% of its 5G subscribers. Elsewhere, for example in the UK where mid-band spectrum is being utilised, there is a speed upgrade (albeit nowhere near as much) but 12X more users are able to access the 5G airwaves.
What is critical about 5G right now is not delivering gigabit speed over the air, there are no applications which require this today, but demonstrating 5G is an upgraded service. Speed and latency improvements are a must, but if the users cannot access them the money spent on 5G networks are a complete and utter waste of time.
The US does of course recognise this situation, Pearson highlighted there is momentum gathering in support of the telcos in Washington, however it is far from an ideal situation. This is a pain point, though there is plenty of risk on the horizon to acting as a blocker for the solution.