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US starts edging towards mid-band spectrum release

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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.

Looking at the telcos who have currently launched in Europe, EE is making use of 255 MHz of the 3.4 GHz frequency range, while Vodafone has176 MHz in the same frequency band and Three is making use of 60 MHz in 3.4 GHz band and 164 MHz in the 3.6–4 GHz range. In Germany, DT is making use of 3.6 GHz it acquired in June, while Vodafone acquired 3.5 GHz assets last year. In Switzerland, Sunrise is utilising spectrum in the 700 MHz and 2.4-2.5 GHz bands. Telecom Italia has 700 MHz, 3.6-3.8 GHz and 26.5-27.5 GHz spectrum for its own 5G services. In Finland, Elisa has 130 MHz in the 3.4-3.8 GHz range.

There might be some regional twists, but the mid-band spectrum is a clear consistency.

“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.

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