Is U.S. missing a big 5G opportunity at 6 GHz?

The FCC is on a rampage trying to make as much spectrum available for 5G as it can. But in so doing, is it creating an imbalance in spectrum allocations in the U.S., and if so, what will that mean for the mobile industry in the U.S. At the same time, cable companies are renewing their efforts around spectrum usage and ownership understanding that their future involves both licensed and unlicensed wireless. In various ex parte’s by cable companies they eloquently show the need and benefits of unlicensed spectrum, especially for WiFi 6 and the upcoming WiFi 7 standards. In addition, the cable companies state that they are likely bidders in the upcoming CBRS auction. Licensed CBRS would not only help cable companies with their wireless efforts to potentially off-load MVNO traffic but also expand their footprint to households that are currently not served by cable.

This spring, the agency is widely expected to approve the allocation of 1,200 MHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band (5.925 to 7.125 GHz) for unlicensed use. Although the FCC proceeding assessing what to do with this spectrum has been ongoing since 2017, media attention has only recently been focused on the issues. The FCC’s expected decision would depart from the agency’s typically Solomonic spectrum allocation process where critical spectrum resources are provided for both licensed and unlicensed use.

As pointed out in a recent OpenSignal report, the US spectrum position is less than ideal. Due to the lack of mid band spectrum, US carriers have to provide a mixture of high speed 5G with very limited range or slow 5G with significant coverage. Only Sprint, as the single American carrier with a deep 2.5 GHz mid band spectrum portfolio, can provide both good coverage and higher speeds, and leads in the combined 4G/5G download speed tests.

5G done right requires low band for coverage, mid band for general capacity and speed and high band for hot spot ultra-high speed and capacity. We have low band spectrum, the FCC is doing a world-leading job in clearing high band spectrum, but we are falling short on mid band. The brewing controversy around making the entire 6GHz allocation unlicensed seems to be a real one because this spectrum could be the answer to the licensed operators’ need for mid-band spectrum.  Specifically, licensed use of  6 GHz could give the network operators spectrum to close the gap between the 350 Mhz licensed spectrum for 5G (280 MHz allocated in the C-Band plus the 70 Mhz licensed part of the 150 Mhz CBRS spectrum), and what other countries have allocated or are already using for mid-band 5G. For example, South Korea’s 5G networks run on 280 MHz of mid-band spectrum and will gain another 320 MHz for a total of 600 MHz. Japan’s 5G networks rely on 800 MHz with another 200 MHz for a total of 1,000 MHz and China has 460 MHz allocated to 5G as it is.

Curiously no one seems to be jumping up and down on Capitol Hill asking about the foregone billions of dollars in auction proceeds that would normally go to Treasury if the spectrum were auctioned.  An especially odd fact given the economic uncertainty around the impact of the Covid-19 virus.

There seems to be widespread agreement across the tech and mobile industries that the United States leads the world with innovations evolving out of unlicensed spectrum, including WiFi 6 and WiFi 7.  5G and WiFi are important complements. Thus, it’s curious why the FCC seems so disinclined to figure out a way to divvy up the 1200 MHz of 6 GHz for both licensed and unlicensed used. WiFi 6 is using 160 MHz channels aimed at high bandwidth, low latency applications such as AR and VR, with WiFi 7 doubling the channel size to 320 MHz for double the speed. The 6 GHz band lends itself to a high reuse pattern due to the medium range of outdoor usage combined with the difficulty of the radio waves at 6 GHz to go through walls.

In order not to fall behind other countries who are vying for technological leadership and become the country or region where new inventions are created and rapidly monetized, the United States must bring its spectrum allocations up to par. The United States through its lead in 4G LTE was able to benefit greatly from the smartphone boom and the app economy.  We had the right spectrum when we needed it. Other countries with less flexible spectrum availability fell behind and until now, were not able to catch up. Without our leadership in 4G LTE, companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple would not have become the globally successful companies that have driven the US stock market to unprecedented heights. Without our global leadership in WiFi, fixed wireless devices in the home would be unthinkable. For example, roughly 70% of Americans are using their mobile device, using both licensed and unlicensed spectrum, when they are watching content on their TV.  A company like Qualcomm is similarly successful in both 4G LTE, 5G and WiFi, having developed the necessary underlying technology and chip sets that makes all of mobile communications work.

The most effective US spectrum policy has been to supportsboth licensed and unlicensed allocations.   Departing from that now, at a critical stage in 5G development and deployment, seems alarming and brings into question the ability of US companies to maintain their global leads in innovation, mobile standards setting and more.