5G Spectrum – planning for the future of mobile connectivity

When a new generation mobile technology is launched, much of the focus is short-term. When will mobile operators launch; how fast are the first networks; and what about coverage.

The arrival of 5G is no different, and none of these steps are possible without access to spectrum. A successful roll-out of services is heavily reliant on national governments and regulators. We can already see how countries that provided early access to spectrum are starting to reap the rewards.

But 5G networks are going to be around for decades, contending with increasing number of users that consume more data. To keep up, long-term spectrum planning is key.

To secure the future of 5G performance and coverage, governments and regulators cannot afford to focus on the short-term. A successful long-term spectrum strategy has always been key to countries offering world-class connectivity.

Long-term planning

The latest update to the GSMA’s 5G spectrum position paper puts an emphasis on this topic. It provides guidance for governments and regulators that care about offering the best possible 5G services not just now, but also into the 2030s. The foundation of great 5G connectivity remains the same; networks will still need spectrum across low, mid, and high spectrum bands.

However, governments and regulators must support new harmonised bands on the international stage to help 5G services grow over the longer term. For the top 30 markets, 5G mobile traffic is estimated to increase to 6,268 exabytes annually by 2027. Importantly, 5G accounts for 83 percent of total traffic by the end of the period, according to our recent “Wireless Backhaul Evolution Delivering next-generation connectivity” report, which also focuses on 5G’s long-term future.

It is vital that 5G services are able to scale as adoption grows following initial launches. Research has shown that this is likely to require significant additional spectrum in urban areas as well as more widely across countries to support use cases such as Fixed Wireless Access and IoT. Regulators should aim to:

  • Award at least 80-100 MHz of contiguous spectrum per operator in initial 5G mid-bands (e.g. 3.5 GHz) and 800 MHz per operator in initial millimetre wave (mmWave) bands (e.g. 26/28 GHz); and 
  • Plan timely significant further allocations and significant subsequent awards in both ranges to help 5G scale as needed. This should include more spectrum in the 3.5 GHz range (3.3-4.2 GHz), as well as 6 GHz and 40 GHz.

To make this possible, a key focus will be on more mid and low 5G bands which are a key part of the agenda at WRC-23. Numerous countries are already starting to make long-term decisions around some of these bands (including 6 GHz). Importantly, WRC-23 considerations and efforts to harmonise 5G bands. This helps support affordable equipment, enable roaming and minimize cross-border interference should inform these decisions

WRC-23 is also considering additional 5G spectrum in the 3.5 GHz range, 4.8 GHz, 6 GHz, and 10 GHz as well as within 470-960 MHz. Potential new 5G spectrum in these bands will have a central role to play in ensuring 5G reaches all users and can address key use cases. More spectrum below 1 GHz help support 5G in rural areas, deep inside buildings as well as speed up IoT growth.

5G’s socio-economic impact

The integration of 5G into our lives and work has the potential to impact communities and economies even more than previous generations. But not all 5G networks are equal, and it is up governments and regulators to help make the most of them, both now and in the future. Unfortunately, there is already a significant variation in the amount of spectrum assigned, and the prices paid at auctions, which means the potential of 5G services will vary between countries. This, in turn, impacts the socio-economic benefits of 5G and the competitiveness of national economies.

For countries that don’t take the future needs of 5G into account now, this situation is only likely to get worse and they may come to regret today’s decisions down the line.

Download the updated position paper by visiting the GSMA’s 5G Spectrum Guide.