FCC's Rosenworcel: US 'Falling Behind' on 5G

US regulator says the US now lags a host of European and Asian countries on the award of all-important mid-band spectrum for use with 5G services.

Iain Morris, International Editor

July 13, 2018

5 Min Read
FCC's Rosenworcel: US 'Falling Behind' on 5G

One of the US market's leading regulatory figures has challenged opinion about the country's 5G lead, arguing the US is "falling behind" a host of other nations on the award of the all-important "mid-band" spectrum that 5G services will need. (See The US 5G 'Lead' Over Europe Is Bluster.)

Jessica Rosenworcel, one of five commissioners at the FCC, tweeted her concerns late on Thursday, pointing out that South Korea, the UK, Spain, Italy and China are all ahead of the US on the sale of mid-band airwaves.

"The US is not leading in the race to bring 5G mid-band spectrum to market," said Rosenworcel. "South Korea and the UK held auctions this year. Spain is holding an auction right now. Italy will have an auction later this year. China has already cleared bands for use. The US is falling behind."

Telecom operators will need spectrum across various bands to support the rollout of next-generation 5G technology, which is expected to bring higher connection speeds and lower operating costs than current standards.

In the US, much of the recent focus has been on very high "millimeter wave" spectrum, which is capable of supporting the very highest-speed connections but offers poor wide-area and in-building coverage.

Earlier this week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced plans for auctions of mmWave spectrum in the 24GHz and 28GHz bands that are scheduled to begin toward the end of this year. (See First 5G-Specific US Spectrum Auctions Coming November.)

Another three mmWave auctions -- addressing spectrum in the 37GHz, 39GHz and 47GHz bands -- are likely to take place in the second half of 2019.

But the lower spectrum ranges have garnered less attention in the US than in other parts of the world, despite their versatility.

The spectrum in any band comes with a trade-off: superfast connections but disappointing coverage in the very highest ranges, against much slower services with excellent signal propagation in the sub-1GHz bands. The mid-band frequencies between 3.3GHz and 4.2GHz are seen as a useful compromise, offering both decent coverage and relatively fast connections.

For that reason, operators in Europe and Asia expect mid-band spectrum to be far more important when they are rolling out smartphone-based 5G services. Indeed, because higher-frequency signals cannot easily penetrate buildings and other obstacles, the mmWave spectrum may never get used outside deployments of 5G as a fixed wireless access (FWA) technology -- whereby mobile is used instead of last-mile fiber to provide broadband services for homes and businesses. (See Orange Ups 5G Broadband Stakes in Romania.)

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Aggressive rhetoric from operators has led to a widespread perception that the US is far ahead of Europe in 5G development, but Rosenworcel appears concerned that a shortage of mid-band spectrum could leave her country trailing others in the use of 5G as a mobile technology.

While the FCC this week unveiled plans to free up as much as 500MHz of spectrum between the 3.7GHz and 4.2GHz bands, it has given no indication of the timeframe during which this may happen. (See FCC Proposes Opening More Spectrum for Mid-Band 5G.)

Currently, spectrum in this range is used for satellite services and the FCC is still trying to figure out if it can be reallocated without causing disruption.

"The notice … seeks comment on various proposals for transitioning part or all of the band for flexible use, working up from 3.7GHz, including market-based, auction, and alternative mechanisms," said the FCC in its statement.

US operators do have mid-band airwaves they can use to support 5G, and are freeing up spectrum with the shutdown of older wireless technologies. Yet all have suggested they will need more mid-band spectrum to support their 5G services.

The UK raised £1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) from the sale of airwaves in the 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz bands in April, while a South Korean auction of 3.5GHz and 28GHz spectrum generated $3.3 billion in proceeds. (See UK's £1.4B '5G' auction looks bad for industry and South Korea's 5G Auction Raises $3.3B.)

While not on Rosenworcel's list, Switzerland has also announced plans for a 5G auction that includes spectrum between 3.4GHz and 3.8GHz. That sale will begin next January, with radio licenses due to be awarded by June 2019. (See Switzerland Sets $222M Base Fee in 5G Auction.)

Nevertheless, it is the vast Chinese market -- where hundreds of millions of people now use smartphone services -- that could really spur the development of 5G devices compatible with mid-band airwaves.

China Mobile, the country's biggest operator, this week completed 5G interoperability tests with equipment makers Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) in the C-Band, which covers the 3.3-4.2GHz and 4.4-5GHz ranges. (See China Mobile Taps Huawei & Intel for Interop Testing Ahead of Big 5G Plans.)

A number of industry observers are hopeful the C-Band will emerge as a global mid-frequency range to support spectrum harmonization between different countries and regions.

— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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