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Is There Enough Mid-Band Spectrum?

Chris Pearson – March 2023

One of the great challenges of working for a trade association that represents some of the world’s best wireless companies involves helping all of the key stakeholders outside our membership understand the importance of spectrum. It is the lifeblood of our industry. If you don’t have access to the airwaves, you just can’t do wireless communications. It’s pretty much a non-negotiable reality of the industry.

Yet we do negotiate about it. A lot.

In the latest 5G Americas white paper, Mid-Band Spectrum Update, we outline the latest developments in spectrum, with a specific focus on the United States, and start the dialog surrounding these important spectrum bands. We uncover how countries around the world have ensured their mobile wireless networks have enough spectrum to manage the staggering deluge of data passing through them every month.

Indeed, take a look at this chart below from the latest Ericsson Mobility Report. Note that as of Q4 2022, there were nearly 120 exabytes worth of data traversing global mobile networks – every month.

Global Mobile Data Traffic - Ericsson Mobility Report (Q4 2022)

How much is an exabyte? It’s one million terabytes. Your typical solid-state drive (SSD) can hold about a terabyte of data, so imagine 120 million of those traversing our global mobile networks every month. With no end in sight, look at how quickly that demand curve is growing – it’s doubling every 22 months. Which means the networks two years from now will need to provide twice the capacity of today’s networks, just to meet the insatiable global demand for data.

While technological capabilities continue to provide additional efficiencies in network capacity, the non-negotiable remains spectrum. And every leading nation in mobile communications realizes this fact.

Spectrum is the key ingredient for any wireless technology. The amount and type of spectrum available to a network can impact its capabilities and innovation for entire nations. 5G networks require access to multiple ranges of frequency bands—from low, mid to high. Low-bands are the foundation for every network providing great geographic coverage, but they do not meet all the service requirements for more advanced use cases. Mid-band spectrum (1 – 7 GHz) is tailor-made for 5G deployments by offering a sweet spot between coverage and capacity. High-band spectrum (mmWave and others) provides excellent capacity and is suitable for many use cases but doesn’t provide the geographic coverage that mid-band or low band provide.

Right now, many countries around the world are focused on mid-band spectrum because it offers benefits in both coverage and capacity. It has the ability to deliver quite a lot of data over a decent-sized range and penetrate into buildings and other obstacles, making it an ideal candidate for wireless communications. Around the world, current mid-band spectrum bands include: 1300-1350 MHz, 1780-1850 MHz, 2.5 GHz band, 3100-3550 MHz, 3.7-3.98 C-Band, and 4400-5000 MHz.

But in the United States, current and planned mid-band deployment for commercial uses only involves the 2.5 GHz (n41) band, CBRS (n48) band, 3.7-3.98 C-band, and 3.45 – 3.55 GHz bands. Identification, allocation and repurposing of spectrum is a multiyear process and the lack of spectrum in the pipeline is a critical concern.

Each of these specific bands have offered their own challenges – many involving how to deal with existing or “incumbent” users of the band. For the 2.5 GHz band, Auction 108 dealt with overlay licenses, where licensees obtain the rights to geographic area licenses “overlaid” on top of the existing incumbent licenses.

Figure 2.1: 2.5 GHz Band Plan, "Mid-Band Spectrum Update"

The Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band is a 150 MHz wide broadcast band of the 3.5 GHz band (3550 MHz to 3700 MHz) in the United States.  On January 27, 2020, the FCC authorized full use of the CBRS band for wireless service provider commercialization without the restrictions to prevent interference with military use of the spectrum. Under the new rules, wireless carriers using CBRS might be able to deploy 5G mobile networks without having to acquire spectrum licenses. CBRS plays a very significant role in the ongoing discussion around private 5G networks.

The 3450 – 3550 MHz band involves working with the US Department of Defense, which operates high-powered defense radar systems on fixed, mobile, shipborne, and airborne platforms in this band. These radar systems are used in conjunction with weapons control systems and for the detection and tracking of air and surface targets.

Figure 2.1: 2.5 GHz Band Plan, "Mid-Band Spectrum Update"

The 3.7 – 3.98 GHz band is part of the “C-Band” has been the subject of many discussions involving the FCC, the FAA, and the aviation and wireless industries. It is an important and highly utilized spectrum band with more than 60 countries that have 5G networks deployed in C-band spectrum and safely operated for years without any reported cases of radio altimeters interference.

Figure 2.1: 2.5 GHz Band Plan, "Mid-Band Spectrum Update"

Beyond these four spectrum bands, there are currently no new bands in the spectrum pipeline in the United States as of March 2023 – and indeed, the US Senate just recently failed to renew the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) authority to renew spectrum auctions. This is a critical concern for the future ability of the United States to continue addressing our spectrum needs. Indeed, the Biden Administration and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) are attempting to find ways to release 1,500 MHz of spectrum for study in additional use cases. 

From 5G Americas’ standpoint, we believe the United States should undertake several policies to ensure a strong and stable pipeline for spectrum. These policy recommendations include:

  • The FCC and NTIA in conjunction with the mobile industry should create a spectrum pipeline.
  • A spectrum pipeline should prioritize the availability of lower range of frequencies in the mid-band range.
  • Address the identified potential mid-bands and extended mid-bands that need to be tapped into to support current and future 5G and beyond applications.
  • Coexistence mechanisms already developed for some bands like the 3.45 GHz band may help in developing coexistence mechanism for some new bands.
  • Actionable studies need to begin immediately to allow the introduction of commercial services for mid-band frequencies below 7 GHz.
  • Extended mid-band in the range of 8.5 – 16 GHz will help complement the lower mid-band spectrum and should be assessed.

 

These are just a few of the ideas our organization has laid out in our recent white paper. For additional information, please read Mid-Band Spectrum Update. The United States should continue to work towards aligning its mid-band spectrum allocations with those of the rest of the world. Negotiable or not, spectrum is critical to the U.S. economy, mobile communications, and technology leadership.

 

-Chris

What's the latest on mid-band spectrum?

Check out "Mid-Band Spectrum Update" for up to date information about spectrum availability in the mid-band and other bands.

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