The Need for Mid-Band Spectrum

5G Americas recently released its annual white paper discussing the lack of activity at the FCC in making more mid-band spectrum available for cellular broadband. The group is made up of large cellular carriers and various vendors or other companies associated with the cellular business.

Midband spectrum is an industry-defined term for the spectrum between 1 GHz and 7 GHz spectrum. This is the sweet spot for cellular broadband because these bands of spectrum can cover the distances needed for cell phone data along and carry a decent amount of bandwidth.

The paper laments that are no actions currently at the FCC to consider any new bands of spectrum in the range for cellular data. This is a concern for the cellular industry because it takes many years to open up a frequency for a new use. All parts of mid-band spectrum are currently in use. Any plan to free existing spectrum for cellular use means either relocating the current users to a different frequency or finding a way to accommodate them to coexist with cellular carriers.

The report does a great job of looking at the status of each mid-band spectrum block. Reading through the uses, it becomes quickly apparent that a lot of these spectrum bands are reserved for the U.S. government and includes uses like air traffic control, commercial and military radar, airplane altimeters, and numerous military applications.

I’m always instantly leery of any statistics, but the paper cites a report by Ericsson that the worldwide demand for cellular data is growing at 40% annually. Even if that number is true, I have to imagine that most of the increased demand comes in third-world countries where cellular is the predominant way to use the Internet and where the technology in many networks is still far behind what we have here. This statistic feels like a scare tactic, because 40% growth per year would mean a doubling of network demand every 2.5 years. If that growth was true in the U.S., we’d have heard a lot more about this growth outside of this whitepaper.

But I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think that we’ll eventually need more spectrum for mobile services. All uses of broadband keep growing, and it’s not hard to look out ten and twenty years and see a much larger demand for using wireless spectrum.

The report includes one statistic that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. It says that at the end of 2022 that North America had 108 million connections on the spectrum carriers have labeled as 5G and 506 connections that are still using 4G LTE. The initial goal for using the new mid-band 5G spectrum was to de-load 4G networks – the goal was never to move everybody to 5G. I would have expected more users of the 5G spectrum bands, but there still are a lot of cell sites that have not been upgraded to the 5G spectrum.

I think cellular carriers are going to have a challenge making their case to the public. The carriers have done a magnificent job, at least in cities, of increasing cellular speeds. According to the latest report from Ookla, the median nationwide download speed in March 2023 was over 81 Mbps, with speeds in cities over 100 Mbps.

It’s going to be more of a challenge since cellular carriers have lost some credibility with the public and politicians. They badly needed additional spectrum five years ago, but rather than openly plead that case, the carriers invented an imaginary 5G war with China and convinced the public that giving them more spectrum would transform the world. The dilemma for cellular companies now is that it’s clear that most of the public isn’t willing to spend more to get faster cellular speeds. There is no public outcry supporting more spectrum for cellular companies.

But the public has a short memory. Five years ago, a lot of markets were having huge cellular problems. It was so bad in some places that it was getting hard to make and hold mobile voice calls. The new spectrum bands that we’re labeling as 5G had a big role in solving that problem. As this whitepaper argues, we don’t want to wait until the networks degrade to have the conversation again.

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