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Spectrum Crunch: Doubling Mobile Data Demand Every 20 Months

Chris Pearson - April 2022

Sometime a few weeks ago, I got a chance to sit down with some very sharp government officials to provide my perspective on the state of 5G networks today. We talked about all the regular things, like network deployments, technology, architecture, competitiveness, and spectrum. I shared with them how 5G networks, now in their fourth year of commercial operation, have now exceeded over a half-billion global connections in 2021, with North America accounting for 72 million of that – representing a 292 percent rise from last year.

We touched on how important 5G wireless cellular networks are to the global economy, including their  impact over the next decade of US $1.4 -$1.7 trillion and 3.8 – 4.6 million jobs created, according to a Boston Consulting Group study. Indeed, Accenture believes the impact on Americans will be even more profound, with up to 16 million jobs transformed by 2025 alone. Regulators throughout the entire Americas region understand just how significant the wireless cellular industry is to the functioning of the modern global economy and want to ensure the balance of public and private interests are reflected in their decisions.

Source: (GSMA, Jan 2022)

During our discussions, one figure from my presentation stood out and generated great interest: Forty-four percent.

Let me explain. Forty-four percent is the rate of annual global mobile data growth, excluding certain technologies like Wi-Fi or mobile WiMAX. It’s basically a measure of cellular communications technologies like 4G LTE, 5G, and Voice-over-IP and now represents 84 exabytes of data every month, according to the latest Ericsson Mobility Report update. And while that number may not immediately surprise or interest you, its implications are quite staggering. When mobile network traffic is growing at 44 percent annually, it theoretically and mathematically means wireless network operators could need to double the size or capacity of their networks every 20 months to keep up with demand.

Imagine having to double the size of anything every 20 months. Your 3-foot-tall two-year old toddler would be the same height as a grown man before they turned four years old. Your savings account would go from $10K today to $20K by the end of 2024. You’d double the footprint of your home’s floorplan from 2,000 square feet to 4,000 square feet in the same time period – and then 8,000 square feet in the next 20 months!

(Source: Ericsson Mobility Report, February 2022)

This is in some ways Moore’s Law for wireless, which suggests that computing power doubles roughly every two years. And that’s the world that wireless network operators have been inhabiting for decades. This might be why you see a lot of grey hairs among mobile network operator CTO’s and wireless association presidents (like me).

How is the industry, or specifically mobile network operators, going to stay ahead of this insatiable demand for mobile data? First, technology innovation, research and development are continuing to increase network capacities by pushing the limits of physics. Vendors, operators and standards are all aimed towards improving network performance and capabilities, so there’s a lot of working going into making things work more efficiently.  

Overall, wireless networks are comprised of lots of things, including racks and racks of servers in data centers, routers to handle the network traffic, thousands of miles of fiber optic cabling, cellular base stations, towers, wireless radio transceivers, and end-user handsets, laptops and mobile phones. But perhaps most importantly, they are also comprised of the exclusive use wireless licenses granted to operators to use part of the airwaves that we refer to as “spectrum.”

For your 5G wireless signal to operate well, your network operator needs to optimally have access to low-band, mid-band, and high-band spectrum available. This is because different spectrum bands are more suitable for different kinds of uses. For instance, low-power wide-area applications like IoT sensors can generally be better covered with low-band because they don’t send or receive a lot of data. Whereas very high-quality video in densely packed areas like stadiums, downtown city centers, and airports might be better served with high-band spectrum and lot of small cells to carry all the traffic.

The chart below shows how different leading 5G nations around the world have identified or allocated their spectrum for wireless cellular use. See all the different color fragments in the 1 GHz – 6 GHz range in the United States? The US has historically had a very challenging environment to work in for this mid-band spectrum range due to the very large number of different incumbent (“current existing”) users of that spectrum. That is, a lot of these spectrum frequencies were already spoken for and dedicated to some other use but have now been deemed incredibly important for 5G networks.

(Source: Mid-Band Spectrum and the Co-Existence with Radio Altimeters, 5G Americas, July 2021)

The challenge and opportunity are to continue the pipeline of spectrum for all ranges in the United States, as they are critical to the success of 5G in the U.S. and around the world. Furthermore, 5G Americas advocates strongly for international spectrum harmonization for economies of scale and so that all the wireless devices and mobile phones could easily be used wherever you travel around the world.  In 2021, 5G Americas published a white paper on mid-band spectrum and we continue to work on this important opportunity in 2022.

For 5G networks to fully be able to deliver on many of the new use cases, a mobile data rate of a minimum of 100 megabits per second download and 50 Mbps upload, sub-10 millisecond network latencies, and management of up to a million wireless devices per square kilometer, the GSMA has identified that up to two GHz of mid-band spectrum must be allocated for 5G use between the 2025-2030 time frame. Of that, they specifically recommend two to three contiguous 100 MHz blocks per operator. The United States has made great progress in the mid-band spectrum area, but additional identification and allocation of contiguous blocks needs industry and government attention to meet this recommendation.

There is a lot of work to accomplish in the years ahead for the spectrum pipeline to ensure that wireless cellular networks can meet the growing demand for mobile data, while ensuring the transition from incumbent spectrum licensees and existing spectrum users goes smoothly. Fortunately, we are starting to see some real commitment from leaders at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to coordinate efforts on laying out a future spectrum plan for the US.

Indeed, one of the first examples of this coordination is a new emphasis on receiver standards by the FCC, which is aimed at ensuring that electronic equipment which receives signals will be communicating only on those spectrum frequencies for which they are rated. This is a solid step towards ensuring proper coordination and utilization of our national airwaves for all current and future users.  

Other work is also being done to identify different mid-band spectrum frequencies for potential use, including potentially the 1.3 – 1.35 GHz, 1.78 – 1.83 GHz, 3.1 – 3.55 GHz, 4.8 GHz and higher. With the recent 3.45 GHz auction already closed and the upcoming 2.5 GHz auction slated for July 2022, the U.S. is well on our way towards ensuring a much healthier pipeline for 5G networks.

Leaders in the U.S. government recognize the importance of spectrum to the success of 5G networks, American global competitiveness, and the U.S. economy. They are addressing areas for improvement to deal with some very complex spectrum challenges.

It is worth repeating – global mobile network traffic growing at forty-four (44) percent annually! In the U.S. it will take cooperation, communication, collaboration, and coordination to meet the new emerging innovative 5G use cases and continue as a technology leader in the global economy.  Let’s keep working together to address the vital future spectrum pipeline.  



Chris Pearson

Chris Pearson is the President of 5G Americas.

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