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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.


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