At the start of the year, many were already beginning to call 2020 the long-awaited ‘Year of 5G’. Operators were just starting to tentatively roll out the new technology, expecting it to have a huge impact on everything from how we consume mobile data to the future of industry itself. However, none could have predicted the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which saw the industry rapidly pivot to face this new and deadly disruption.
Given the global effect of the pandemic, as well as its ongoing economic impact, one would be forgiven for thinking that 5G would have been heavily delayed around the world. On the contrary, 5G deployment has still been accelerating rapidly, with the GSMA in July noting 81 commercial launches around the world. Whether 2020 can still be called the ‘Year of 5G’ is up for debate, but the rapid growth and acceleration of the technology is undeniable; in a recent report, the GSMA estimates there will be around 1.2 billion 5G connections by 2025
, with the industry worth $4.9 trillion by 2024.
But while 5G technology is still clearly in its infancy, the industry is already looking to the future to overcome some foreseeable problems – in particular, the issue of spectrum availability.
5G and the ever-growing need for spectrum
5G will be transformational in many ways, from helping to deliver enhanced mobile broadband and high quality video while on the move, to facilitating the IoT and virtual reality. But such data-hungry connections, especially on a large scale, will come at a price, rapidly exhausting the capacity of available spectrum. This will be especially true for dense urban areas, where concurrent usage will make it increasingly difficult to hit the minimum technical performance requirements of the 100 Mbps user experienced data rate specified by the IMT-2020
In short, despite innovation surrounding spectrum efficiency, experts predict that the current spectrum available to operators will cease to be sufficient in just a few years. The 5G Automotive Association (5GAA), for example, estimate that operators will need around 500 MHz more spectrum
in the mid-band to truly facilitate high capacity citywide advanced automotive vehicle-to-network services.
So, where will this additional mid-spectrum come from? In a recent webinar sponsored by Huawei, Ericsson, Nokia, and ZTE, panellists suggested that 6 GHz mid-band spectrum could be an ideal long-term solution.
Introducing the 6 GHz band
It goes without saying that not all 5G spectrum is created equal. Low-band 5G (typically <2 GHz), offers great coverage but relatively minor improvements in speed, while high-band mmWave (24–80 GHz) 5G is the opposite, lacking range but offering blisteringly high data rates. Mid-band spectrum (2–7 GHz) is considered by many operators to be the perfect compromise between these two extremes, providing substantial coverage and capacity. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this range has quickly been established as the most popular for facilitating 5G, with 3.3–3.8 GHz the most common band used globally.
Naturally, additional mid-band spectrum would be invaluable to operators, and the 6 GHz band (5.925–7.125 GHz) falls within this 5G sweet spot.
“We consider 6 GHz to be real mid-band,” explained Sergey Pastukh, vice-chairman of WRC-19, chairman of RA-19, and vice-chairman of RCC Commission on Spectrum and satellite orbits.
He argued that while some may view the 6 GHz band as having less range compared to the 3.5 GHz band and less speed than mmWave, this misconception does the band a disservice. Instead, it should be considered that the 6 GHz band will offer greater speed than traditional mid-band spectrum and greater range than mmWave.
“This will give operators increased flexibility when building a cost-effective network, especially for urban deployments,” he explained.
There are, of course, propagation differences between the 6 GHz and 3.5 GHz bands, but these can be easily overcome by vendor solutions in the coming years.
“The first prototypes will be available by the end of the year,” noted Alessandro Casagni, Director, Wireless Regulatory Policy EMEA, Huawei Wireless Network Product Line speaking on behalf of the four sponsoring network equipment manufacturers, adding that commercial products will be commercially available after World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC23) based on market demand.
The band would not only be incredibly useful for the aforementioned urban deployments, it would also have a very positive impact for Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), not only allowing the technology to reach more rural customers, but also increasing performance. As a scalable alternative to fixed broadband, FWA is rapidly gaining traction with operators, with some research estimating that FWA will account for around a third of the overall home broadband market by 2030.
6 GHz availability and the importance of sharing
“Sharing is really important for the success of this band,” noted Pastukh.
Currently, the 6 GHz band is being occupied by a number of different services, varying from country to country. Typically, these include wireless backhaul typically supporting mobile operators’ networks and fixed satellite services (Earth station to satellite link), which means that new usage of the spectrum will rely heavily on sharing and avoiding interference.
Some detractors suggest that, as a result, the 6 GHz band will be very problematic for the operators to work with. However, the GSMA’s Senior Director of Future Spectrum, Luciana Camargos, says it is simply too early to tell, noting that research into sharing will begin in earnest in 2021.
“Saying that anything is not possible at this stage is simply not true,” said Camargos, while Pastukh noted that he was “very optimistic” about sharing and the future of the spectrum band.
It should also be remembered that for some countries, the 6 GHz band is one of very few options when it comes to increasing an operator’s 5G spectrum holdings.
“In some countries mmWave is simply not an option right now,” explained Gababo Wako, Spectrum Manager of the Communications Authority of Kenya & ATU WG1A Vice-chair. “There are also some countries that face a real challenge when attempting to refarm sufficient mid-band spectrum for 5G. So, the 6 GHz band is an excellent solution to help alleviate both of these issues.”
WRC-23 and the future of the 6GHz band
The 2023 World Radio Conference will be of immense importance for the future of 5G, set to make decisions surrounding the formal identification of the 6GHz band. During the initial discussions that took place at the WRC-19, the band was actively supported by China and other APAC countries, the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) as well as by the Regional Commonwealth in the field of Communications organisation (RCC).
In order to make the 6 GHz band work efficient and cost effectively for operators around the world, international harmonisation will be of crucial importance.
“Harmonisation and harnessing the benefits of economies of scale are really key,” explained Casagni, noting that 3GPP were already studying the relevant technical specifications.
For the panellists of the webinar, both operators and vendors alike, the 6 GHz band is a promising – and necessary – direction for future study.
“We are currently deploying C-band that will address the short term demand,” said Päivi Ruuska, Spectrum Manager at Telia Company. “The 6GHz band will become very important starting from 2025. With the licensed approach administrations will be able to manage coordination with fixed links smoothly, as they do today in other bands.”
“In our view the 6GHz is the most promising band in the future to address the growing demand from UHD and AR/VR that will become mainstream with users’ watching time growing together with the improved screen resolution and refresh rate,” explained Xiaoran Zhang, spectrum program manager and 3GPP RAN4 Chief Delegate from China Mobile.
“We firmly believe that 6GHz band as an IMT licensed spectrum has the great potential to meet the spectrum demands in the coming years,” said Huawei’s Director, Wireless Standards, Zukang Shen. “As for the 3.5GHz band, cost effective solutions for wide area coverage can be provided in the 6GHz band.”
This shared optimism is corroborated by a questionnaire from the GSMA, which found that 90% of mobile operators globally said that they believed 6.425–7.125 GHz to be of high priority for the industry, while for vendors this number reached 100%.
Perhaps this united interest in the 6 GHz band is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than by the sponsors of the webinar itself. There are few topics in the telecoms world upon which four major hypercompetitive vendors will present a united front, proving just how important identifying additional mid-band spectrum is for the growth of 5G and the advancement of the industry as a whole.
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