The spectrum battle

At the dawn of a New Age of ultra-connectivity, having access to harmonised spectrum frequencies has become vital. The mid-range 3.4 – 3.8 GHz band is likely to support the fist 5G services to launch in Europe, sometime before 2020. The 26 GHz band has both European and near global backing – the only holdouts being the United States and South Korea.

5G likely to affect every frequency

In the mobile industry, the race to achieve Gigabit-speed access has created the need for more dedicated and varied spectrum resources. In 2015, the WRC-15 ratified the changes to be brought to frequency allocations on an international scale. It allocated frequencies in three main bands to mobile services: the L band (1427–1518 MHz), the lower end of the C band (3.4–3.6 GHz) and the 700 MHz band (694–790 MHz) in Europe. In light of the difficulties in reaching a consensus on frequencies below 6 GHz for 5G, the WRC-15 proposed that several very high frequency bands (24–86 GHz) be examined, then validated at WRC-19. More than two years after WRC-15, debates on the issue continue unabated and regional positions are becoming entrenched. But some certainties are emerging: 5G will likely combine the use of several bands: low frequencies below 1 GHz to meet coverage needs, mid-range frequencies, between 1 and 6 GHz, to satisfy capacity and coverage needs, and very high frequencies to meet speed requirements.

Mid-range frequencies now being allocated

Among all of these frequencies and in the run-up to WRC-2019, the mid-range 3.4 – 3.8 GHz band is attracting a great deal of attention around the globe. Changes to the terms and conditions for accessing the 3.6 GHz (3550–3700 MHz, Citizen Broadband Radio Service or CBRS) band, and notably the spectrum-sharing schemes that have been put into place, were the first manifestations of this. In Europe, the 3.4–3.8 GHz band, officially called the ‘pioneer band’ and which has already been allocated in Ireland, is being examined, at least for the five largest mobile markets. Licences are likely to be auctioned off in 2018, and the first 5G services rolled out by 2020. In Asia, 3.4–3.8 GHz band frequencies have been partially reserved for 5G, albeit with some variations from country to country.

High frequency bands still being studied

As for high frequency bands, work under way in preparation for WRC-19 has confirmed the positive outlook for global harmonisation around the 26 GHz band. Alternative initiatives in the United States and South Korea focusing on the 28 GHz band, which is not on the agenda for WRC-19, do not have European support.

Possible 26 and 28 GHz band arrangements
Global consensus on the 3.4-3.8 GHz band