Band of Gold

US regulator announces mid-band spectrum auction

High-band millimetre-wave spectrum is exciting, but not practical. It offers lots of throughput and low latency, but needs many small cells to be effective. US wireless carriers hoping for a fast deployment of 5G using millimetre wave, namely AT&T and Verizon, are coming to a realization that building out a 5G network to cover much of the US will take a collection of spectrum from high to low.

AT&T and Verizon are certainly examining the sudden confidence of Sprint. Despite being the nation’s smallest major wireless carrier, Sprint is winning respect for having a relatively quick and strong 5G roll-out using its 2.5 GHz spectrum. Its likely merger with T-Mobile would create a major carrier with a powerful spectrum portfolio, from low- and mid-frequency bands to millimetre wave (see Another Plus for One Plus in the US).

The 5G network of the so-called New T-Mobile — the combined T-Mobile and Sprint entity — is certainly causing its biggest rivals to re-evaluate their network strategies. And any opportunity to add mid-band spectrum to expand 5G coverage would lead to some sort of internal corporate frenzy.

Last week, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began preparations for an auction of 70 MHz of 3.5 GHz spectrum referred to as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band. The auction would take place in June 2020.

This spectrum would be of particular interest to AT&T and Verizon, as it would allow them to deliver 5G services in suburban and rural areas, including mobile and fixed wireless access. These two carriers won’t be alone in bidding for the spectrum, but they will not want to let their market lead slip as the US moves into 5G during the coming years.

Although Verizon recognizes the importance of owning more mid-band airwaves, CEO Hans Vestberg has said that technologies such as dynamic spectrum sharing, which lets carriers share existing spectrum between 4G and 5G instead of rigidly allocating separate bands for each, will enable it to offer the right mix of coverage and capacity. Verizon plans to launch dynamic spectrum sharing in the first half of 2020, in conjunction with Ericsson, although it has not specified in which bands.

The FCC itself is under pressure to find ways to make the US a global leader in 5G, given the potential importance of not only creating a next-generation network, but a next-generation economy. A robust 5G ecosystem will enable enterprises and consumers to do new things better, and it will bring connectivity to more places. The FCC knows that more mid-band spectrum is needed to fill the gaps.

For this reason, the commission is planning to open up some spectrum in the CBRS band as unlicensed spectrum, allowing for lower-cost roll-outs of 5G networks. The FCC can also be expected to make more mid-band spectrum available for carriers to license.

Regulators in most countries have worked to release mid-band spectrum to local operators for pragmatic 5G deployment. Many telecom operators around the globe are depending on 3.5 GHz spectrum for 5G services, including in Australia, South Korea, Switzerland and the UK.

The US rightly needs to find middle ground in its 5G roll-out. This will be an important auction for useful spectrum, which will turn out to be a band of gold.