Verizon starts toying around with mid-band spectrum

With 5G falling flat in the US, it appears Verizon is taking matters into its own hands with an application to the FCC to experiment with mid-band spectrum, specifically, 3.7-3.8 GHz.

In fairness to the US telcos, there hasn’t been much opportunity to deliver 5G over the airwaves which are proving critical to the rest of the world. The ‘C-band’ spectrum is congested, though the FCC is currently in the process of clearing it and creating a dynamic spectrum sharing initiative which could be the envy of the world. Better late than never.

According to the application made to the FCC, Verizon is planning on running trials over the 3.7-3.8 GHz spectrum in several locations in three states, namely:

  • Basking Ridge, New Jersey
  • Westlake, Texas
  • Williamston, Michigan
  • Okemos, Michigan
  • Jenison, Michigan
  • Hudsonville, Michigan
  • Ada, Michigan
  • Lowell, Michigan
  • Sunnyvale, California

Many telcos around the world have been bragging of the benefits of mid-band spectrum, benefiting from a more palatable compromise between increased download speeds and coverage, the US telcos have been struggling with mmWave or low-band airwaves, neither of which can deliver on the much-hyped 5G promise.

The status quo of disappointment was fine as long as all the telcos are underwhelming, but there has been a recent development which should worry the likes of Verizon and AT&T.

As part of the merger agreement between T-Mobile US and Sprint, the new company will have access to all three tiers of spectrum. T-Mobile had been offering 5G over 600 MHz and mmWave already, which was not satisfactory, however it now has access to Sprint’s 2.5 GHz assets. A blend of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum licences should see a very effective delivery of 5G. This is already being delivered in Philadelphia, though it won’t be long until it is scaled by the ambitious challenger.

Looking at the 5G subscriber forecasts by analyst firm Omdia, this could have a very material impact on the balance of power in the US telco industry.

Forecast of 5G subscriptions in US (2020-2022)
Telco 2020 2021 2022
AT&T 5,581,572 14,416,872 29,301,757
Verizon 2,520,867 16,560,150 35,020,621
T-Mobile and Sprint 5,560,802 18,560,447 36,266,014

Source: Omdia World Information Series

Alone, T-Mobile would erode the subscription lead AT&T and Verizon hold over it today, but it would still be in third place. When you combine the T-Mobile and Sprint figures, you have a market leading firm.

Some might suggest the figures are incorrect as the merger would mean Sprint disappears, but this will not happen overnight. Legacy deals might well be kept in play for the short-term under the Sprint brand as integration projects and campaigns run, but they will be delivered over the same network. The very network which will have the most comprehensive and attractive blend of spectrum.

“Mid-band spectrum provides the sweet spot combination of capacity and coverage for modern 5G networks that the rest of the world is coalescing behind,” Chris Pearson, President of 5G Americas, recently wrote on a blog post championing 5G as a catalyst for recovery from the current global pandemic.

“The international standards forum 3GPP identified the spectrum range 3.3-4.2 GHz as the core 5G band for countries around the world. But the US has yet to auction any exclusive use licensed spectrum in that global mid-band range for 5G.”

Pearson has pointed to regulatory restrictions slowing progress in accessing mid-band spectrum, a critical component in ensuring 5G meets the promises being made by the telecoms industry. A lack of mid-band spectrum is problematic for numerous reasons.

Firstly, coverage can only be delivered only low-band airwaves, but this does not deliver speed upgrades as T-Mobile customers are finding out. Over mmWave means coverage is very limited, which AT&T and Verizon customers are discovering, while it means network deployment is also a lot more expensive as densification projects are very costly and time consuming. Latency is also falling short of all standards by all telcos.

Pearson is of course a champion for the telecoms industry, but the necessity of mid-band spectrum is also replicated at regulatory level.

“For America to be a global leader and win the race to 5G technologies, which we must do for both economic and national security reasons, we must actively identify and make available a key ingredient necessary for 5G networks and systems: mid-band spectrum,” FCC Commissioner Mike O’Reilly said in a letter to President Donald Trump in April.

“Yet, the pipeline is nearly empty, and our wireless providers lack sufficient mid-band spectrum to meet the exponential growth enabled by 5G networks and expected by users. I believe that only you personally, with your unique ability to cut through the bureaucratic stonewalling, can free the necessary spectrum bands to provide our wireless providers the means to succeed.”

If the US is to deliver the 5G promise it needs access to mid-band spectrum. Not only will this benefit consumers, but it will allow enterprise customers to deliver on the newly emerging 5G-powered business models. Without it, US corporations might fall behind international rivals who exist in countries where the mid-band airwaves are available. This is a mid- to long-term consequence, but one which would be much more damaging to the US economy on the whole.

As it stands, only T-Mobile is in an adequate position. This should be a concern for AT&T and Verizon.

T-Mobile is a company which has been very successful in recent years, growing from a position of irrelevance to a genuine threat. The comfortable spectrum position could act as another catalyst for growth, potentially creating a new leader in the US telecoms industry.


Telecoms.com Daily Poll:

How critical is mid-band spectrum in delivering 5G services?

Loading ... Loading ...

New Zealand sensibly abandons latest 5G auction and just hands the spectrum over

A chunk of mid-band spectrum was due to be auctioned-off in New Zealand around now, but COVID-19 has caused a change of plan.

The Radio Spectrum Management department of the NZ government recently made the following announcement: “In May 2020, the Auction for short-term, early access rights in the 3.5 GHz band for 5G services (Auction 20) was cancelled. This was due to the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, a direct allocation process will be undertaken. Offers will be made of 40 MHz to Dense Air, 60 MHz to Spark, and 60 MHz to 2degrees.”

Spark and 2degrees are two of the three Kiwi MNOs, alongside Vodafone NZ, which apparently has quite enough mid band spectrum already, thank you very much. Dense Air is a UK-based company that specialises in small cell connectivity. Understandably Spark and 2degrees are happy with the decision.

“Securing 3.5GHz spectrum was critical for the rollout of a full suite of 5G services, so we would like to acknowledge the Government for facilitating the allocation, which will enable us to proceed with our planned 5G roll out at pace,” said Spark CEO Jolie Hodson. “We plan to switch on 5G sites in a number of major centres and regions across the North and South islands over the next year. To maintain this momentum, we are keen to work with Government to accelerate the timeline for the longer-term spectrum auction, which is currently scheduled for November 2022.”

“This decision makes sense. At a time when the impact of Covid-19 means operators are having to make tough calls on how they spend their capital, it needs to be focused on the networks delivering the capacity people need – and can use – today,” said 2degrees Chief Executive Mark Aue. “At the same time, access to 5G spectrum will allow 2degrees to continue its 5G network planning and site acquisition so it can build and test the technology. This will provide time for 5G uses cases to develop, and initial deployments, in advance of long term spectrum rights that will power national 5G services from late 2022.”

Vodafone seems to have kept quiet on the matter, but it must be secretly annoyed at the good fortune of its rivals. Maybe it will have a quiet word with the government behind the scenes, asking for a cheeky bit of spectrum sometime in future, to level the playing field once more.

It’s good to see that governments and regulators are capable of forgoing easy money when the circumstances demand radical action. Besides, public money is already being thrown around in a bid to stave off another great depression, so a few Kiwi buck is just a drop in the ocean. But credit where it’s due, this is not the time for the public sector to be extorting money from the private sector and NZ deserves credit for acknowledging that and acting accordingly.

US 3.5 GHz spectrum auction delayed by a month

The US Federal Communications Commission is delaying an imminent spectrum auction by a month coz of coronavirus.

Auction 105 is for the part of 3550-3650 MHz band currently being used for CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) that the FCC has decided to license. It’s not the biggest 5G auction ever, but operators are keen to get hold of as much mid-band spectrum as possible in order to be able to deliver on their lofty 5G bandwidth promises. It was due to take place in 25 June, but has now been delayed until 23 July.

“Many Americans have had to make tough decisions on how they do business in this rapidly changing environment, and the FCC is no different,” said Chairman Ajit Pai. “After consulting agency staff within the relevant bureaus and offices, we determined that it was in everyone’s best interest to make these changes. But we remain committed to holding the 3.5 GHz auction this summer and look forward to beginning this important mid-band auction in July.”

Given the scale and severity of the pandemic, merely delaying by a month seems somewhat optimistic. The decision may well have been influenced by President Trump’s current rhetoric on the length of time the country will need to be locked down (see below). They presumably feared a longer delay would have indicated a less bullish stance, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see that date pushed back again before the summer.

US attempt to grab mid-band spectrum for 5G gets messy

The US telecoms regulator wants satellite companies to hand over 300 MHz of C-band spectrum, but the question of how compensation remains unresolved.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently made a rambling speech about how vital it is to US strategic interests that it lead the world in 5G. Apparently critical to this is a chunk of mid-band spectrum currently owned by a few satellite companies, so he wants to compel them to make it available to operators.

In return he’s going to get the operators to give the satellite companies up to $5 billion to cover the cost of vacating 300 MHz from 3.7-4 GHz and a further $9.7 billion to compensate them for the lost asset so long as they hand it over sharpish.

This is where things get complicated. On one hand it’s distinctly possible that the satellite companies will decide that’s not a fair valuation of their precious spectrum and thus hold out for more, with even the threat of bankruptcy apparently on the table. On the other hand there are people who thing that price is too high and in anyone’s going to extort US operators it should be the US state. And presumably the operators themselves would rather not get rinsed yet again.

“The imminent issuance of the draft order reflects the tireless efforts of many over the past several years to ensure that this critical spectrum comes to market safely, quickly, and efficiently,” said a statement issued by The C-Band Alliance, which represents the interests of Intelsat, SES and Telesat in this matter. “Today’s comments by Chairman Pai are a significant development in this important proceeding. We look forward to reviewing the draft order, once issued, to place Chairman Pai’s comments in full context.”

The danger for the C-Band Alliance is that the current US administration increasingly views 5G as a matter of national security and of strategic geopolitical significance. If Kennedy’s bleat is anything to go by, the US state is warming to the idea of unilaterally appropriating private property in the name of kicking 5G ass. 5G is important, but so are property rights and legal due process. Something’s got to give.

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.