New Spectrum for 5G: Adding Up the Mid-Band Maths

This article is part of the Spectrum Policy Trends 2023 report. Download the full report for a handy compilation of the top six spectrum policy trends for 2023.

Pressure on mid-band spectrum is increasing, and governments are looking for answers to satisfy demand for 5G and 5G-Advanced. 2 GHz of mid-band spectrum will be required per market, on average, by 2030 to ensure the speed and quality of mobile, but there is no easy decision to be made as to how to satisfy that demand.

The results of WRC-19 provided mobile with a new tranche of high-band spectrum to allow for the highest capacity installations. High bands will be used within small geographical areas to provide the highest speeds and lowest latencies, but the densification required means that these will not be used city-wide. Mid-band remains vital to securing consistent 5G user speeds for consumers, schools, and businesses across connected cities.

The 3.5 GHz 5G launch band will require expansion in the second half of the 2020s, and 2023, including the results of WRC-23, will be a crucial year. The roadmaps to deliver spectrum capacity and mobile development in the late 2020s – which serve as the starting pistol for the parallel development of mobile ecosystems in new bands – are already in place in governments focussed on competitive and agile digital markets.

Why does it matter?

International agreements on mid-band spectrum have long since been outstripped by national decisions in 5G markets, and demand is growing. The World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) this year can create parity between national spectrum needs and internationally harmonised bands, but excessive assignments to unlicensed technologies or private network carve outs all put pressure on 5G spectrum, lowering 5G speeds and raising prices. Spectrum solutions are still there to deliver the promise of 5G, but governments need to ensure that the maths adds up.

Assignment of mid-band spectrum was the starting point for 5G, in most cases using the 3.5 GHz launch range. Consistently, in the years since the first 5G networks, 3.5 GHz has been responsible for about 80% of 5G launches. However, by 2030 5G will be at the height of its impact on our businesses, economies, and livelihoods, and around half the world’s mobile connections will be through 5G. Consequently, the greatest demand will be placed on mid-band spectrum by that time.

Demand will not come to a standstill as 5G develops into 5G-Advanced. As network quality improves throughout the decade, traffic volume will follow. Countries that have planned sufficient spectrum for 5G launch will require a roadmap for its expansion.

2 GHz of mid-band spectrum are required by 2030, on average, per market. Today, around 650-750 MHz of mobile spectrum is typically available between 1-3 GHz. In the more mature 5G markets, 400-500 MHz of 3.5 GHz spectrum usually supports city-wide 5G, meaning a total of around 1150 MHz is typically available today. While the size of the remaining shortfall varies, there is work to be done by all governments and regulators to meet long-term demand.

The 6 GHz band is an important tool in satisfying demand for mobile. As shown above, it is difficult to meet demand if without it. While governments can juggle the mid-band maths, certain bands give them a much easier task in getting the job done.

What are the policy considerations?

The mobile industry is as agnostic as possible about how that 2 GHz mid-band demand can be met. In reality, countries are addressing this through a small number of bands:

  • By using the 3.5 GHz range (3.3-4.2 GHz) up to 4.2 GHz or considering below 3.3 GHz (3GPP n77 and n78)
  • By relying on adding more spectrum using 6 GHz (3GPP n104)
  • By considering parts of the 4.5-4.99 GHz range for additional capacity (3GPP n79)

When planning mid-band capacity, governments should consider the following:

  • Plan to make 2 GHz of mid-band spectrum available by 2030. This is the average value needed to guarantee the IMT- 2020 requirements for 5G.
  • Carefully consider 5G spectrum demands when 5G usage will be reaching its peak, and advanced use cases will carry additional needs.
  • Base spectrum decisions on real-world factors, including population density and extent of fibre rollout.
  • Support harmonised mid-band 5G spectrum (e.g., within the 3.5 GHz, 4.8 GHz and 6 GHz ranges) and facilitate technology upgrades in existing bands.

What to expect in the year ahead

GSMA Intelligence research shows that, at the end of November 2022, more than 225 operators from 87 countries had launched 5G services. The number of 5G mobile connections will rise by some 50% next year, hitting 1.5 billion by the end of 2023. This growth will require additional spectrum resources in all frequency bands. In 2022, mid-band spectrum (1–7 GHz) accounted for over 60% of total frequencies assigned. This trend is set to continue in 2023 based on the range of confirmed spectrum assignments for the year. The spectrum bands under consideration at WRC-23 also speak to the importance and potential of mid-band spectrum, alongside other bands, to put 5G services into the hands of more people and reduce the digital divide.

Policy Good Practice: China focus on the 6 GHz band to satisfy the fast-rising demands for 5G

Since the awards of commercial 5G licences in 2019, China has become the largest 5G market globally both in scale of deployments and consumer take-up. Its award of mid-band frequencies across the 2.6 GHz and 3.5 GHz bands for 5G have played important roles in tackling the significant coverage and capacity challenges. Looking at the next stage of 5G expansion, China has put its focus on the 6 GHz band and expressed strong interest to utilise 6 GHz (5925-7125 MHz) for IMT to satisfy the fast-rising demands for 5G.

To facilitate a conducive environment for the global 6 GHz IMT ecosystem to thrive, China is actively participating in compatibility studies in the ITU and APT, including active contributions to the development of IMT characteristics such as RF and network deployment parameters for coexistence studies. The country is also contributing to important propagation measurement data for the revision of relevant ITU-R Recommendations on propagation models.

In parallel, China has also started the domestic coordination and preparation for the use of the 6 GHz band for IMT.