It’s barely been a month since I posted about the recent GSMA Intelligence cost-benefit analysis of policy options in the 6GHz band.

I hadn’t expected to write anything on it again so quickly, until I had the pleasure of speaking at the 6GHz 5G/IMT spectrum forum at MWC Barcelona on 1 March. With almost 100 on-site attendees and 250 participating online from across 80 countries, there was clearly a lot of interest, especially from governments and policymakers. Perhaps more important, the fact that it was co-hosted by a number of vendors as well as operators (alongside GSMA Intelligence) signals how important the topic is.

The event started with presentations from Luiz Felippe Zoghbi, senior spectrum policy manager at GSMA, and myself.

Zoghbi presented findings from studies that highlighted the average need for a total of 2GHz of mid-band spectrum in dense urban areas, along with a recent GSMA Intelligence report that quantified the socio-economic benefits of assigning sufficient mid-band spectrum. I then presented the findings from our recent 6GHz report.

Views from policymakers
This intro was followed by some excellent insights from a range of policymakers. The importance of identifying new spectrum bands was emphasised by all. For example Tariq Al Awadhi, spectrum expert with the UAE’s Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority (TDRA), described UAE’s strategy for 5G, which is expected to be the dominant mobile access technology by 2027, and emphasised the need for new frequency bands.

Heidi Himmanen from the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency (Traficom) stated it supported the upper 6GHz band for IMT because it can play an important role for the future of 5G and even the introduction of 6G.

Daniel Obam from Kenya’s National Communications Secretariat noted the 6GHz band was seen as an important to compensate for the lack of other mid-band spectrum in many African countries

Of course, a key ongoing issue remains the protection of incumbent services in 6GHz, specifically fixed satellite services and fixed services including mobile backhaul.

Eric Fournier of the Agence Nationale des Frequences (ANFR) in France, discussed the ongoing sharing studies regarding protection of incumbent services at 6GHz in preparation for WRC-23. He highlighted the protection of fixed-satellite service (FSS) uplink as the key international issue, with the caveat that the upper 6GHz is not expected to be used much for satellite uplink in Europe, as the paired downlink bands are not available anymore.

All of the panellists mentioned the importance of allowing the technical studies to conclude for WRC-23. Olfa Jammeli of Agence Nationale des frequences Tunisie, noted all new applications for 6GHz microwave links in Tunisia have been postponed until after WRC-23, as they await the sharing studies to assess the possibility of allocating upper 6GHz to IMT.

Views from industry
The event also saw contributions from industry players, including three operators with a large base of fixed and mobile customers.

Vodafone Group executive Santiago Tenorio, and Roberto Rodriguez Dorrego from Telefonica both said it was important to keep a balanced approach in the 6GHz band, given the required network densification to deliver 5G would not be viable without any 6GHz spectrum. This is especially the case in countries with limited fixed broadband penetration and which rely heavily on mobile connectivity. Meanwhile, in markets with widespread fixed infrastructure and which are seeing increasing fibre-to-the-home, the operators said allocating the lower 6GHz band for unlicensed use (primarily Wi-Fi) is enough to ensure high quality home services.

Deutsche Telekom expert Jan Hendrik Jochum also noted ambitious political goals from the European Commission targeting all populated areas to be covered by 5G by 2030 could only be met with spectrum in the 6GHz band. He explained without upper 6GHz spectrum, mobile operators will not be able to provide the required 5G outdoor capacity, which would risk Europe’s digitalisation falling behind other regions, particularly the US and China.

Further comments were provided by 5G equipment vendors. Nokia standards head Ulrich Dropmann stated the importance of the 6GHz band to fuel the “5G Advanced World” in the second half of the decade when the 5G vision will be completed, while Ericsson director Erika Tejedor elaborated on the IMT’s ability to share spectrum with services which are in the 6GHz band.

Huawei wireless network executive Xu Weizhong offered some interesting experience from China, where field tests carried out in the 6GHz band showed it can provide the same outdoor coverage as 3.5GHz along with a 15 per cent throughput gain when using 128 TRX Massive MIMO.

Lastly, MediaTek standards expert Tim Frost highlighted the importance of using 6GHz for both licensed and unlicensed service, noting it was technically feasible to support this in the same device.

The road to WRC-23
In 2020, some of us asked whether the early decisions on the 6GHz band may have been rushed. At the time, given the potential long timescale of using the band for 5G and the opportunity for it to be used quickly for Wi-Fi 6E, it may have been attractive to allocate the band for unlicensed use.

However, the number of 5G connections is expected to reach 1 billion this year, while the amount of data traffic carried over mobile networks will almost double compared with 2020.

When taking a ten-year view, there is a serious risk mobile networks may not be able to sustain the performance requirements expected from 5G without more mid-band spectrum. Meanwhile, questions are also being asked as to whether the full 6GHz band is needed to address expected Wi-Fi demand, especially in markets where existing spectrum in the 5GHz band and in the 60GHz band) is under-used.

For policymakers, the critical milestone now is WRC-23 and for the ITU technical studies to conclude so they have a clear understanding on how to ensure the protection of incumbent services, before making an informed decision on the optimal assignment of the 6GHz band.

With WRC taking place in 2023, this no longer seems so far away and, at least based on this event, it sounds like many governments and regulators are waiting until then before they take a considered approach.

– Kalvin Bahia – economist, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.