In 2020 we talked about the decisions being made around 6GHz spectrum and asked whether or not those decisions were hasty.

As we embark on a new year, it’s worth taking another look at the space, particularly in light of a major industry show of support from late in 2020.

Back to the future: context around 6GHz
If you didn’t see our post from September 2020, you should go back and read it. In the meantime, here’s a quick recap of the key facts and dynamics we outlined.

Escalating data demands continue to drive the 5G market. Where Covid-19 (coronavirus) accelerates fixed wireless or digital transformation trends, this escalation won’t be tapering off in the near-term. To deliver robust 5G services, diverse spectrum resources are required: low-, mid- and high-band. Against this backdrop, the 6GHz band (5925MHz to 7125MHz) has been getting a lot of attention recently, particularly with an eye towards WRC-23, where use of the band for IMT technologies will be on the agenda. Yet, while it could help to support 5G agendas and rollouts, markets are pursuing an array of different strategies for 6GHz allocation, including licensed and unlicensed use.

  • The US supports unlicensed use across the entire band.
  • China supports the entire band for licensed 5G.
  • Europe opted for unlicensed use in the lower portion of the band (below 6425MHz).

This leaves many other markets to make their own decisions. As they do, we argued, it was important to recognise the value of licensed spectrum, particularly in terms of the harmonisation it can bring, and the resulting support for ecosystem development and economies of scale.

What’s changed recently?
Fast forward from September 2020 and the fundamental dynamics around 6GHz allocations remain. Many markets still need to make their own decisions. Arguments for licensed versus unlicensed use continue to be made.

On December 15, however, a webinar was held which provided an important update on the market dynamics.

Broadly, the webinar included a set of regulators from China, Egypt and Slovenia, and mobile industry participants (GSMA, ETNO, Telefonica, Ericsson, Nokia). The message centred on the value of 6GHz as a licensed band for 5G. On this front, most of the messaging was not new.

The key messages? 5G is an important technology for serving diverse use cases. The 5G ecosystem is rapidly developing, but its success depends on robust and diverse spectrum assets. 6GHz has an important role to play in this success. In the here and now, markets are following widely different paths to 6GHz usage, with WRC-23 on the horizon and the opportunity for global harmonisation around IMT usage. All of which led to an industry statement: “We therefore recommend policy makers and stakeholders to carefully assess the opportunity of IMT identification at the WRC-23 within the 6GHz band which will be important to establish the large scale ecosystem for this band.”

So, is there anything new?
When a topic is important, reminders are always useful. As we move into 2021, more markets will be making decisions around 6GHz usage, including key countries where public consultations are underway: Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Brazil and Canada. Ensuring regulators and industry participants in these markets have all the information they need is critical.

But, a handful of messages from the webinar were particularly telling and useful for driving the conversation forward. The fact that China is moving forward on 6GHz technology trials in 2021. The assertion 5G could provide similar wide area coverage in 6GHz and 3.5GHz spectrum, implying a potential reuse of site infrastructure. The joint positioning from Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia and ZTE: markets in Latin America need to consider the role 6GHz-based 5G can play in terms of solving fixed broadband demands; more broadly, the lower 6GHz band (5925MHz to 6425MHz) should be treated on a country-by-country basis, while the upper portion (6425MHz to 7125MHz) should be sorted out with WRC-23.

Stop and think about this last piece.

Sure, competing vendors will agree on important topics. But this often happens separately: their messages align, but independently. It’s not unheard of, but public-facing joint statements from fierce rivals are important signals of what the industry is aligning around. And as we look forward to 2021, it suggests a few things to look at.

  • The continuing pace of 5G demand and uptake around the world
  • 6GHz decisions in other markets, particularly Latin America
  • The results of trials in markets like China
  • Support from other suppliers and market participants

Once again, in a list of points, I’ve saved the best for last.

While spectrum harmonisation can yield incredible benefits, so too can ecosystem messaging and positioning harmonise. As an important issue which could impact the success of 5G going forward, support from a wide array of suppliers (not just the network incumbents) is important and hopefully something we’ll see more of in 2021.

– Peter Jarich – head of 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.