What is Spectrum?

Mobile uses spectrum to provide voice and data connectivity. Spectrum relates to the full range of electromagnetic frequencies, of which a portion is used for communications by a variety of services and industries.

Because the mobile industry has demonstrated — time and time again — its potential to generate economic value and social benefit, operators are urging national regulators to release sufficient, affordable spectrum in a timely manner for mobile. Additional frequencies, including both coverage and capacity bands, means mobile operators can connect more people and offer faster speeds.

So, what is spectrum? There is an FAQ below. You can also download our Introducing Radio Spectrum document.  It can be found here.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is responsible for licensing spectrum across the globe?

Spectrum is a sovereign asset. That is, use of the airwaves in each country is overseen by the government or the designated national regulatory authority, which manages it and issues the needed licenses.

Why does it take so long for governments to release new spectrum?

There are several factors that play into spectrum planning for mobile. For example, at the international level, the International Telecommunication Union and regional bodies are deeply involved in agreeing and assigning future bands for mobile, bound by international treaty. National regulatory authorities are concerned with interference that could arise from incompatible spectrum use along borders, which must be managed or negotiated with neighbouring countries.

At the national level, even after reallocating a particular band for mobile, there is the work of migrating incumbent users, such as broadcasters or defence programmes, out of the band in a practical, managed way. Finally, equipment manufacturers need to develop affordable devices that work seamlessly within new frequency bands. Each of these steps can take years to achieve before new spectrum can be licensed and used for mobile services.

Is one ‘slice’ of radio spectrum essentially the same as any other?

Not at all. Spectrum bands have different characteristics, and this makes them suitable for different purposes. In general, low-frequency transmissions can travel greater distances before losing their integrity, and they can pass through dense objects more easily. Less data can be transmitted over these radio waves, however. Higher-frequency transmissions carry more data, but are poorer at penetrating obstacles. National regulatory authorities have a big job, therefore, to allocate and license appropriate resources to the services and sectors that can make the most of it.

What and how much spectrum is needed for 5G?

5G needs a significant amount of new harmonised mobile spectrum so defragmenting and clearing prime bands should be prioritised. Regulators should aim to make available 80-100 MHz of contiguous spectrum per operator in prime 5G mid-bands (i.e. 3.5 GHz) and around 1 GHz per operator in high-bands (i.e. mmWave spectrum). Low-bands are also needed to support widespread coverage across urban, suburban and rural areas and help support Internet of Things (IoT) services.

Read more about 5G spectrum needs here.

Doesn’t it make sense for governments to raise as much revenue as they can from spectrum licences?

While tempting for some governments, revenue maximisation should not be a primary consideration of spectrum auctions. Fair allocations at reasonable costs to the mobile industry will maximise the value generated by a band, and this in turn has a positive impact on social as well as economic development — creating jobs and increasing productivity, among many other benefits.

Why is it so important to license Digital Dividend spectrum?

The mobile industry has connected more than 5 billion unique subscribers, but there is still a lot of work to do. A first step on the road to connecting everyone is licensing digital dividend spectrum bands. This refers to frequencies previously used by analogue TV, and can be freed up for mobile broadband use by switching to digital TV.

These bands are ideal for mobile, offering good coverage characteristics, reasonable capacity and availability in sufficient blocks for efficient deployment of mobile broadband.

The social benefits that come from using the spectrum for mobile broadband are massive. Access to the internet through mobile bridges the ‘digital divide’ between technology haves and have-nots. Also, mobile services in this band can reach into previously unserved rural areas in a relatively cost-effective way.

Shouldn’t governments raise as much money as possible from spectrum awards

The issue of pricing has never been more vital. Additional spectrum is central to expanding and upgrading mobile broadband services – and will be core to the success of 5G. While tempting for some governments, revenue maximisation should not be a primary consideration when licensing using methods such as auctions.

Evidence shows that when prices are too high, consumers can suffer from more expensive, lower quality mobile services. Also, efforts to maximise revenues from auctions can damage the wider economy. Instead, to deliver affordable, high-quality mobile broadband services with good coverage, operators require fair access to sufficient radio spectrum.

Read more about the importance of spectrum pricing here.