On 13 August, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published its response to petitions made by public safety and utility companies to reconsider a decision to open up the entire 6GHz band for unlicensed use. A day later, Aviat Networks (a microwave network equipment company) announced the results of its tests on the effects of unlicensed device use at 6GHz on microwave point-to-point links operating in the same band, showing some interference for incumbent users in the band. The next day, a separate FCC filing was made by Google wanting to test a radio system working on the 6GHz band across 26 states in the US.

While you may have missed or decided to ignore these recent pieces of news, they highlight an important mobile dynamic.

The need for connectivity is greater than ever, driving demand for more spectrum
Global lockdowns have emphasised we rely on connectivity like never before. Moving forward, shifts in patterns of work and entertainment will likely accelerate the need for higher network speeds and greater capacity. 5G networks will sit at the heart of a new ecosystem and will deliver a clear step-change in the capability and functionality of networks.

Despite the impact of the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, the world has now clearly entered the 5G era. As of the end of the second quarter, GSMA Intelligence figures showed 5G was commercially available from 87 operators in 39 markets worldwide. The global number of 5G connections stood at 57 million and will rise to nearly 145 million by the end of 2020, as more markets see 5G launches and adoption levels in the early-adopter markets ramp.

Mid-band spectrum (1GHz to 6GHz) is key for the success of 5G. With the growth in mobile data traffic, a trend set to accelerate with the widespread launch of 5G networks, operators will require access to growing amounts of spectrum to meet demand. While the 3.5GHz band has emerged as key for 5G at a global level, offering the optimum balance of coverage and capacity, the 6GHz band could play a role in the future of 5G, allowing additional access to much sought-after mid-band spectrum

Current and proposed uses of the 6GHz band
The 6GHz band (5,925MHz to 7,125MHz), as recent news suggests, has garnered attention as it is being considered for a number of new uses: licensed 5G and unlicensed uses such as RLAN, Wi-Fi and unlicensed 5G. The band currently has incumbent users including fixed links for mobile backhaul and fixed satellite service. Use of the upper part of the band (6,425MHz to 7,125MHz) will be discussed at WRC-23, with a view to opening it for IMT applications such as 5G.

While some countries are considering using, or have decided to use, the band for unlicensed applications, others have committed to different plans. The US supports unlicensed use for all of the band, while Europe opted for unlicensed use in the lower part only (below 6,425MHz). China, meanwhile, supports the use of the entire 6GHz band for licensed 5G.

Early decisions on band for unlicensed use may be hasty
Looking at the current regulation being developed around the unlicensed use of the 6GHz band, there are already a lot of differences. The most notable are around frequency ranges, radiated power levels, indoor and outdoor restrictions and use of databases to protect incumbent services in band. The lack of coordination is likely to lead to interference issues, with many of the benefits of harmonisation unrealised.

Further, countries that allow unlicensed use of the 6GHz band at this early stage will find it difficult to reverse the decision and clear the band at a later stage. We saw the effects of such a process not long ago in Europe. CEPT’s efforts to clear the 3.5GHz band, move incumbents out and reorganise it have been strenuous. There was an impact in terms of delays in assigning spectrum, which meant some countries could only make available relatively small amounts of spectrum, creating scarcity and driving up spectrum prices. The results of the spectrum auction in Italy where operators paid €4.02 billion for such little spectrum are a bitter reminder.

The case for licensed use is robust
The benefits of spectrum harmonisation are well known and proven. Harmonisation refers to the uniform allocation of frequency bands across entire regions, not just individual countries. Uniform allocation typically leads to a much broader ecosystem in terms of technology, equipment and general engineering expertise. It also promotes confidence among equipment manufacturers and service providers to invest. It ultimately benefits consumers through the realisation of significant economies of scale, lower costs of deployment for operators and rapid rollout of new services. Without spectrum harmonisation it is unlikely that mobile would have become the success story it is today. And that is one of the main reasons why countries try as much as possible to be aligned, with the ITU and WRC leading this important development.

The payback for harmonisation is further complemented by the licensed use of spectrum, which brings two additional significant benefits: greater reliability and better network performance.

While some may argue there is a certain momentum around the new use of the 6GHz spectrum band, it’s important not to overlook some of these important considerations.

A rushed decision now can lead to difficulties reversing further down the track.

– Dennisa Nichiforov-Chuang – lead analyst, spectrum, 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.