The Challenges of 5G Spectrum

5G MobileThere has never been as much uncertainty about spectrum for a new generation of mobile service technology as there exists today for 5G. GSM was set in the 800 / 900 MHz band and 3G was set in the 2.1 GHz band. Vendors aligned their products with the target bands. There was clear focus and purpose. Then came LTE where uncertainty on spectrum began to creep. Looking back at 2006-2009 timeframe when LTE was under developments and in trials, a number of bands were identified and available instead of specific spectrum. Initially the thought was for higher bands such as 2.5 GHz, but LTE was deployed in 700 / 800 MHz first reiterating that coverage is always the lead driver for deployments of new technologies for both regulatory and practical business and operational considerations: after all, there’s no capacity challenge on new networks. Today, fragmentation of spectrum is the hallmark of LTE. While much of the same will be for 5G when it happens, it promises to be even a deeper problem.

LTE Spectrum

LTE Channels 1 through 44 with the collective spectrum spanned.

5G is promising to add several layers of complexity due to its all inclusive nature of services which range from extreme broadband services to massive machine-type communications (mMTC) and ultra-reliable MTC. These applications have their own requirements and sweet spots for spectrum bands. Additionally, the spectrum regime will no longer be based on the exclusive licensing nature characterizing LTE spectrum, but will also include unlicensed and shared spectrum schemes. Also, the different use cases to LTE mean different spectrum bands. Fragmentation of spectrum, expansion of bands, and multiplicity of licensing schemes will be the hallmarks of 5G spectrum. This raises significant questions for vendors seeking to align spectrum requirements of future 5G products.

NGMN 5G Use Cases

NGMN 5G use case families and related examples. [Source: NGMN]

Which bands will be available then for 5G is a mystery all in itself. The ubiquity of 5G applications, requirements and services would not exclude any band allocation in the radio spectrum. On this, no one is clearer than the GSMA: “The GSMA’s position is that three key frequency ranges are currently worthy of consideration for different 5G deployment scenarios: Sub-1 GHz, 1-6 GHz and above 6 GHz“. If capacity is a major driver for 5G as it has been for previous generations, it will be a challenge to find wide spectrum allocations in sub-6 GHz. Discussion on which bands to allocate for IMT-2020, or 5G, have only started a few months ago at the national regulator level led by the FCC last October.

FCC mmWave Bands

Bands Under Investigation in the FCC NOI on 5G.

The process of allocating spectrum for 5G can start with WRC-15 in November which can set in motion decisions on 5G spectrum at WRC-19. But practically, it will get more difficult to obtain sub-6 GHz spectrum, which is why 5G is pushing into microwave and millimeter wave bands. For example, in one of the first moves by a regulatory body, the FCC is investigating the suitability of such bands for access technology and the US proposal for WRC-19 for 5G spectrum includes 27.5-29.5 GHz, 37-40.5 GHz, 47.2-50.2 GHz, 50.4-52.6 GHz, and 59.3-71 GHz.

IMT-2020 Timeline

Timeline & process for IMT-2020.

These frequencies don’t present a practical and economical approach for carrier deployed networks in the traditional planned fashion. The use of microwave and mmWave bands requires a different, consumer-led process to setup service. The restricted coverage area requires different spectrum licensing schemes: how spectrum should be assigned goes hand-in-hand with what spectrum to assign.

The challenges of spectrum for 5G make all predictions of early deployments – as early as 2020 – wishful thinking in my opinion. Carriers have invested much in LTE and will continue to invest beyond 2020. That’s why some have voiced apprehension about the 5G hype, blaming it on vendors as did Douglas Li the CEO of SmarTone. His comments resonate with many carriers who are not as bold as to voice that publicly.  In the end, carriers have to recoup their investments before making new ones. A 5G technology vision based on similar approach to previous generations runs a major risk of hurting rather than benefiting the industry. Spectrum harmonization improves financial metrics and the lack of it increases the risk of 5G for operators.

International Carriers’ Path to The IoT Gold Mine

Wholesale IoT OpportunityThe following excerpts are from a paper we recently published in collaboration with Hot Telecom on the business opportunity for wholesalers in IoT. Here, I capture the opportunity for the enterprise and transport sectors, but we also address the consumer sector. You can download the paper at this link to begin exploring recommendations for international wholesale carriers.

Opportunities in Enterprises

Providing services to Enterprises of all types and complexity is one of the key opportunities. International carriers can leverage their existing relationships and local presence to provide a multinational service platform offering a number of applications in the industrial and commercial sectors. For instance, multi-national corporations will require solutions to help them manage: Read more of this post

Edging Closer Towards Disruption in Radio Access Networks

Cloud-RANIn past articles [1, 2], I stressed that Cloud RAN is a disruptive technology. There are a few reasons for this, but I think that most critical reason is that Cloud RAN breaks open a pricing structure that’s been in use ever since the wireless industry was created. The current pricing model for base stations is based on a tight coupling between hardware and software that is impossible to separate. So, when a network operator buys a base station, the operator selects how many frequency carriers each sector would support and a corresponding number of remote radio heads. This model becomes obsolete in Cloud RAN where the hardware and software are decoupled. There is no longer a 1:1 relationship between baseband modules and RRHs due to pooling and virtualization. New pricing schemes are now possible as there is more room for operators to optimize the subsystems they need in the network. Cloud RAN not only decouples hardware from software, but also changes the coupling among hardware subsystems. This has profound implications on the future cost structure of wireless networks and operators have taken notice. OEMs looking to challenge the position of the primary entrenched incumbents are leading the charge in Cloud RAN development with a vision to increase their market share. Read more of this post


LTE-U vs Wi-FiReading some of the literature about LTE-U (and LAA) leads you to believe that its deployment is a foregone conclusion: operators love it; vendors support it, and products will be available within months. But operators lack the sales channel into the enterprise where LTE-U is envisioned to be deployed and provide most value.

While LTE-U may find its way into the handset fairly rapidly, its path into the Wi-Fi access nodes will be long and arduous as that ecosystem is not particularly friendly to LTE-U (Cisco for example), while the channels of the small cell vendors, such as Huawei and Ericsson, into the enterprise are less established.  Read more of this post

Is LPWA for Mobile Network Operators?

Is LPWA for MNOsYou don’t need to be a wireless carrier to operate an LPWA network and provide IoT connectivity services to hundreds of thousands of devices. LPWA technologies operate in unlicensed spectrum which opens a wide door to anyone to play in the IoT connectivity space, including of course mobile network operators (MNOs). But is LPWA for MNOs? Or more precisely, LPWA opens the door for new applications and business models, but to what extent can MNOs leverage LPWA and can they make a successful business out of it? Or are LPWA networks best run by new entities unencumbered with legacy solutions and processes? Read more of this post

Time for a Comprehensive Strategy for License-Exempt Spectrum

Spectrum ConnectivityCalls for regulators to release more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi are getting louder: the 2.4 GHz band is heavily used and the 5 GHz band suffers from many restrictions that limit its applicability. LTE’s entry into unlicensed spectrum is further amplifying these calls and adding an acute sense of urgency.

But what is required is more than additional unlicensed spectrum. There needs to be a comprehensive strategy not only for additional unlicensed spectrum, but also for ensuring that regulations are harmonized to the extent possible between regions and are aligned with socio-economic needs. This is because we reached a point where additional spectrum means greater divergence between regions and increased market fragmentation, a similar scenario to the current state of the 5 GHz band. Read more of this post

Microcapacity: Unbinding Wireless Capacity Through Trading Exchanges

bandwidth exchangeMicrogeneration allows one to generate electricity for own use, typically using renewable resources such as wind or solar energy. Excess energy can be sold to the power company. The arrangement helps in evening out the variability in energy consumption. It reduces the peak load requirements for the main grid while energy generated during non-peak hours can be diverted to where it is most needed. There is no reason why wireless cannot work in a similar way. I call this “mcirocapacity”: individuals, businesses and communities can generate their own wireless capacity and sell the excess capacity to the wireless carriers. The concept is not novel and elements of it have already been developed. What is lacking is the impetus to put it into practice. Simply put, the time is yet to be right. Read more of this post


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