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The Future of Wireless Spectrum Needs Collaboration Between Industry and Government

Chris Pearson, President, 5G Americas (January 2024) – As we embark on the journey towards 5G-Advanced and 6G, it’s clear that the roadmap to these future technologies is intricately tied to the evolution of the 5G spectrum. The recent white paper “The Evolution of 5G Spectrum” from 5G Americas provide valuable insights into this journey, highlighting the need for strategic spectrum allocation and innovative utilization for the optimal performance of these advanced networks.

The transition from 5G to 5G-Advanced is not merely an upgrade; it’s a gateway to the 6G future. This evolution demands a strategic approach to spectrum allocation, focusing on securing new, licensed spectral bands. The emphasis is on overcoming the challenges posed by existing allocations, which are already densely packed. This approach is pivotal for maintaining the U.S.’s leadership in mobile communications and fostering technological innovation and economic enhancement.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is at the forefront of shaping this future. Their IMT-2030 usage scenarios are instrumental in projecting the spectrum needs of future mobile networks. These scenarios envision a world replete with immersive experiences and advanced sensing applications, necessitating robust and versatile network infrastructure capable of supporting high data rates and extensive coverage.

The ITU World Radiocommunication Conference 2023’s decision to identify additional spectrum in the 4.4-15.5 GHz range is a monumental step forward. This move is in anticipation of a fourfold increase in cellular network traffic by 2028, paving the way for emerging applications in extended reality (XR), connected vehicles, and the burgeoning metaverse.

The white paper places a spotlight on the significance of the upper mid-band spectrum, particularly in the 7.125-15.35 GHz range. This spectrum band is essential for leveraging existing infrastructure to enhance capacity while ensuring wide coverage. The challenge lies not just in identifying new spectrum but in utilizing them efficiently as part of a broader National Spectrum Strategy for the United States.

New spectral bands will complement the capability of current mmWave bands, known for high-capacity, short-range applications, that have a vast potential beyond their current usage. They are poised to play a crucial role in next-generation applications like healthcare, augmented/virtual reality, and more. Similarly, Sub-THz bands, though challenging due to higher propagation losses, are expected to revolutionize wireless connectivity with applications in wireless fronthaul, data centers, enterprise, and home connectivity.

5G millimeter wave commercialization around the world

While the United States is a frontrunner in several aspects of 5G technology, it faces global competition in licensed mid-band spectrum availability. Countries throughout Asia and other parts of the world have made significant strides, offering valuable lessons in effective 5G deployment. According to a study published by CTIA, the U.S. is positioned 13th of 15 leading global markets regarding available, licensed mid-band spectrum. The U.S. has made a total of 450 MHz available in the 3-7 GHz range. In contrast, Japan’s current allocation is 1100 MHz, and the U.K.’s is 790 MHz. China has also currently allocated 460 MHz of mid-band spectrum; however, China also has announced the identification of the upper 700 MHz of the 6 GHz band to IMT and is considering the remaining 500 MHz for IMT.

Amount of licensed mid-band spectrum by leading 5G countries

For the U.S., adopting a proactive and strategic approach to spectrum management is essential to bridge this gap and maintain its competitive edge. Government regulatory process challenges, such as the ongoing lack of renewal of the Federal Communications Commission spectrum auction authority, have a real impact on the planning and decision-making at US wireless network operators. While national network operators like AT&T have expressed their support for ongoing study and potential repurposing of the lower 3 GHz and 7 GHz bands for full-power licensed use, others have been impacted and only recently received authorization to use commercial spectrum licenses they received in the recent Auction 108. CTIA has also released its set of policy recommendations for America’s Spectrum Strategy. 

As we noted in March 2023, the FCC has contributed over $230 Billion to the U.S. Treasury and for thirty years the FCC has efficiently assigned mutually exclusive spectrum to those providers that most value it to deliver important cellular wireless services to the American public. The wireless industry enables 4.5 million American jobs and contributes roughly $825 Billion per year to the U.S. economy. Spectrum is vital to economic and technological competitiveness and leadership.  

However, the path to 5G-Advanced and 6G involves not just identifying new spectrum bands but also developing techniques to utilize them effectively. Innovations in dynamic spectrum sharing and Massive MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) technology are crucial. These innovations allow for more efficient use of the available spectrum, accommodating more users and facilitating higher data throughput. The sheer increasing density of transceiver elements in an antenna array will take advantage of the higher frequency, smaller wavelength capabilities of spectrum in these new ranges.

Increasingly dense transceiver elements in a high-order MIMO antenna array

The future of mobile connectivity, marked by the transition to 5G-Advanced and the eventual adoption of 6G, presents both opportunities and challenges. This transition will require not just technological breakthroughs but also collaborative efforts between industry and government. It’s a journey that necessitates foresight, agility, and a commitment to continuous innovation and adaptation. Through the years, 5G Americas with other major associations, member companies and industry partners, has played a role in navigating the maze to help secure AWS, C-Band, 3.45 GHz and other spectrum bands for the industry.  We are committed to traversing the current complex road map to find a successful route for adding more licensed spectrum.

The evolution of the 5G spectrum is a journey of strategic importance, defining the future of mobile connectivity. It is a multifaceted challenge encompassing technological, regulatory, and strategic dimensions. Addressing these challenges head-on will unlock the full potential of 5G-Advanced and 6G, ushering in a future that is more connected, efficient, and innovative.


Global Spectrum Harmonization is Vital

Find out more about how evolving trends in technology and government regulation impact the future of spectrum availability for 5G and future networks.

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