The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is preparing to auction previously unavailable mid-band spectrum to telecoms, which could accelerate 5G rollouts in the US.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the FCC will vote to seek comment on draft procedures for a spectrum auction for 70 MHz of the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, which would be set for June 25, 2020. The FCC is also considering new rules to free up additional spectrum in the 3.7 GHz-4.2 GHz bands, according to Telecoms.com.
Here's what it means: Acquiring mid-band spectrum will enable US telecoms to efficiently create wider-reaching 5G networks and offer rural 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) services.
Mid-band will enable wider-reaching networks that require less equipment than the mmWave networks currently used by major US telecoms. The two largest US telecoms by subscribers, Verizon and AT&T, are deploying 5G networks largely using mmWave spectrum, which enables fast data speeds but limited coverage and penetration compared to mid-band.
A reliance on mmWave 5G requires using small cells to spread 5G coverage, which can be expensive to deploy and only cover small areas. Mid-band would allow Verizon and AT&T to deploy 5G with fewer cell sites because its frequency travels further and can better penetrate into buildings. Currently, the only major US telecom with a wide reserve of mid-band is Sprint, which has spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band.
Additional mid-band spectrum will also help bridge the US' digital divide by enabling carriers to efficiently deploy a 5G network in areas where they plan to offer 5G FWA services. 5G's fast wireless data speeds have opened up the opportunity for mobile operators to match broadband speeds for home internet and provide a competing service.
While mid-band may not provide the same quick speeds as mmWave, its wider reach can help provide connectivity in rural communities via 5G FWA services. Mid-band enables carriers to more efficiently offer home internet via their wireless networks rather than conducting an expensive fiber or small cell build-out in rural areas.
5G FWA will enable telecoms to compete with traditional home internet companies like Comcast and Charter and can give rural households more connectivity options: Nearly one-third (29%) of US households either have no service or lack a second option for wired broadband service, and that share jumps to over 61% in rural households.
The bigger picture: Mid-band spectrum is scarce in the US, which is costing the country an economic opportunity.
The FCC is attempting to remedy the scarce availability of mid-band by providing both licensed and unlicensed spectrum. In addition to 70 MHz being auctioned by the FCC in June 2020, the regulatory body is expected to provide 70 MHz of unlicensed spectrum in the 3.5 GHz CBRS band, per Light Reading.
This unlicensed spectrum, which can be used by any operator, can help the US further catch up to other countries on mid-band availability when commercial operations on the spectrum are approved for use. The unlicensed spectrum could, however, be subject to interference from overuse.
The FCC would be taking the right approach by simultaneously offering up unlicensed spectrum as it would increase the accessibility of 5G for organizations that don't have the funds to secure valuable mid-band spectrum at auction. While freeing up the spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band is a start, the FCC must continue to free up additional bands which have been set aside for Department of Defense use, or occupied by fixed satellite operators to transmit signals to cable TV ground stations.
A lack of allocated mid-band spectrum for 5G is costing the US the opportunity to create jobs and boost the economy — reallocating 400 MHz of licensed mid-band spectrum between 3.45 GHz and 4.2 GHz for 5G networks would result in $274 billion in additional GDP and create 1.3 million jobs in the US, according to Analysis Group, cited by CTIA.