5G in US: Will Spectrum Be the Speed Bump?
The ability to deploy 5G in the US -- especially on the accelerated timetable that some operators want to do it -- partially hangs on the availability of plentiful high-band millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum. There are still questions, however, about how and when mmWave bands will be available for next-gen services, particularly in light of the delays to the 600MHz auction, and a change in guard at the FCC.
In July this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to open up 4-millimeter wave bands for next-gen mobile and wireless broadband usage. These are the 28GHz, 37GHz and 39GHz licensed bands, and a public, unlicensed band between 64GHz and 71GHz.(See How Will the FCC Spectrum Decision Help Mobilize mmWave for 5G? , FCC Comm. Names 4 Initial 5G Bands for US, Eyes More and How Will the FCC Spectrum Decision Help Mobilize mmWave for 5G? )
This would open up vast amounts of new high-band spectrum for wireless use, 3.85GHz of licensed spectrum and 7GHz of unlicensed spectrum. In contrast, a mere 80MHz of usable bandwidth was up for grabs this month in the latest phase of the dragged-out 600MHz auction process. (See FCC's 600MHz Auction Flops Again.)
Chatting briefly on the sidelines of a press conference with Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S)'s CTO John Saw in New York this week, I received another indication, however, that expecting the massive swathes of mmWave spectrum to be available to operators in the 2018-2019 timeframe -- when they should start wide-scale outdoor testing and deployment -- might be a bit optimistic.
Saw said that he was "watching closely" the bands that the FCC has said it will open up. He didn't, however, know when they might be available or how the FCC would open the bands, whether through auction or some other means. (See Sprint Lights Fire Under High-Band 4G, Builds for 5G.)
"I don't know; they haven't said," Saw remarked.
Another source familiar with FCC procedure told me this fall that nothing concrete will go ahead with millimeter wave until after the 600MHz auction process is completed. The 600MHz UHF airwaves auction started in March this year and will now drag on into 2017. It is not yet possible to say how long the auction will take.
Therefore, timing -- with the lengthy 600MHz process ongoing -- is going to be of the essence. Even if the FCC were to issue a ruling in January 2017 allocating microwave spectrum bands to operators, it would still take operators at least a couple of years to get services up and running on new spectrum.
For instance, T-Mobile US Inc. is just starting services on AWS-3 mid-band spectrum licenses that it was issued in April 2015, having won them at auction in January 2015. This is considered fast work in wireless circles; AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless aren't offering services on their AWS-3 licenses yet.
Not to mention that the mmWave spectrum is not something that mobile operators have ever used to deploy broadband services before, unlike AWS-3.
Given this, Verizon and T-Mobile could have a slight advantage in the early days of 5G, as both operators have access to 28GHz spectrum now. Verizon has leased fixed wireless "LMDS" licenses from XO Communications Inc. , while T-Mobile acquired 28GHz spectrum when it bought MetroPCS. In its July 14th rulemaking on the mmWave bands, the FCC said that it "granted mobile operating rights" to existing 28GHz and 39GHz fixed wireless licensees.
Verizon is pushing ahead to deploy fixed wireless 5G before other operators anyway, with city pilots and possibly limited commercial services in 2017. Meanwhile, T-Mobile has so far been focused on a true mobile rollout in the 2020 timeframe.
Neither operator has enough spectrum to do more than a limited rollout of its preferred 5G flavors in the US on 28GHz anyway. (See Islands in the Stream: Don't Expect Full mmWave 5G Coverage in US, Says Nokia.)
Beyond these concerns, the 'X factor' in the 5G spectrum picture is how focused the FCC will be on pushing ahead with the spectrum policies after President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month. (See Wheeler to Leave FCC Next Month.)
Trump has said nothing about 5G before or after the election, although we don't know if it was talked about during the tech summit the president-elect held in Manhattan last week. Trump's transition team for the FCC, meanwhile, seems initially more focused on Net Neutrality and stripping back the agency's power and size. (See FCC on the Verge of 2-2 Split and Trump Promises Tech Execs 'Easier' Trade Conditions.)
So, given these issues, I think it is worth watching how the 5G mmWave spectrum picture develops in the US over the next year. Time is running out to have high-band spectrum available for the anticipated 2020 rollout.
— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading