A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … sorry, wrong war!
Back on earth, the established U.S. wireless carriers are battling it out with rebels and new entrants for the hearts and minds of their customers. Spectrum access is a competitive differentiator and a strategic weapon. This is especially important as 5G rollouts gain momentum and multiple new frequency bands are built out for different applications and use cases in different vertical markets.
5G is the air interface standard but it is not tied to a single frequency. The real value of 5G comes with where and how carriers use it to meet specific customer needs, not just more-of-the-same, high-speed mobile data coverage. As such, carrier strategies reflect, “the more spectrum, the better.”
Each of the major U.S. wireless carriers has a mix of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum, albeit in different proportions and in different frequency ranges. Each company compiled their respective portfolios through a combination of wins in FCC spectrum auctions, mergers and acquisitions with companies already holding licenses and, in some cases, trading or leasing spectrum with existing license holders to create contiguous coverage in specific markets.
Wide bandwidth swaths of millimeter wave (mmW) spectrum have added significantly to the carriers’ total holdings well above levels of low- and mid-band frequencies used for 2G through 4G LTE deployments. mmW spectrum allows these carriers to expand their wireless service offerings beyond mobility to include fixed wireless access (FWA) applications in point-to-multipoint (PMP) configurations. A good example is Verizon’s 5G Home Ultra-Wideband service (not to be confused with 5 GHz WiFi) that uses 28 GHz mmW to compete with fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) internet access, mainly in markets outside of Verizon’s primary Northeast service area. (see, 5G Fiber-rich Networks)
Each band grouping offers different but well-known propagation characteristics (see, Will We Run Out of Spectrum?).
Basically, the trade-offs are among distance, high-speed data throughput and latency. Low-band frequencies such as 600 and 700 MHz offer very good coverage over wide areas from macrocells but with typically 10 MHz channel sizes that limit data throughput and latency performance. At the other end of the scale, high-band mmW frequencies such as 24, 28 and 39 GHz with their wide 100 MHz channels can deliver from outdoor or indoor small cells high-capacity throughput at low latency but over short distances.
Mid-band frequencies, AWS (1.7/2.1 GHz), 2.5 and 3.5 GHz offer an attractive economic and technical balance of these three transmission parameters. As such, carriers have options to deploy 5G in the most cost-effective manner for the markets and applications where they hold licenses. To wit, T-Mobile is gaining roughly 150 MHz of 2.5 GHz from its merger with Sprint to add to the already substantial holdings in 600 MHz, AWS and 24/28 GHz. The company has nationwide coverage but is expected to tailor 5G deployments, according to the application.
The other major carriers are taking a similar approach. DISH Networks is the newcomer embarking on a mission to create a greenfield fourth national carrier to compete with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. But the company already owns substantial spectrum holdings. DISH is betting on faster time-to-market at lower capital expenditure (capex) compared to conventional networks by leveraging its combined spectrum positions in 600/700 MHz, AWS and 24/28 GHz deployed in a virtualized network architecture similar to Japan’s Rakuten Mobile.
The diversity of spectrum available to carriers today and in upcoming auctions for C-band and CBRS PAL auctions raises the competitive stakes. For all the carriers, the 5G clock is ticking. May the (spectrum) force be with you!
By John Celentano, Inside Towers Business Editor