More spectrum is the first step towards getting 5G right

The first commercial 5G services are here, and the next two years will see launches all over the world. But not all 5G networks are created equal; their performance is heavily reliant on the amount of spectrum made available by regulators and governments.

The GSMA’s updated position paper on 5G spectrum includes eight steps to success; from the need for significant amount of new harmonised frequencies to boosting long-term investments. This isn’t just about success for mobile operators, but everyone who connects using 5G. And it can’t be done without the support of governments and regulators.

First, regulators should aim to make available 80-100 MHz of contiguous spectrum per operator in prime 5G mid-bands (e.g. 3.5 GHz) and around 1 GHz per operator in millimetre wave bands (i.e. above 24 GHz).

Countries such as Korea and Finland have shown this is possible, and put themselves in a good position to make the most of 5G. This includes the ability to offer significantly faster fiber-like broadband speeds while also enabling the full potential of the Internet of Things. From autonomous cars and smart cities to the industrial internet and fibre-over-the-air, 5G will be at the heart of the future of communications.

The other seven positions delve deeper into areas where governments, regulators and the mobile industry must cooperate to make 5G a success.

One of the key issues is that 5G needs spectrum within three key frequency ranges to deliver widespread coverage and support all use cases. The three ranges are: Sub-1 GHz, 1-6 GHz and above 6 GHz.

Availability of millimetre wave spectrum in the latter range is dependent on what happens at the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2019. It is vital to realising the ultra-high-speed vision for 5G. Government backing for the mobile industry is needed during the whole process. The GSMA recommends supporting the 26 GHz, 40 GHz and 66-71 GHz bands for mobile.

In addition to these bands, 28 GHz is also a key band for realising the ultra-high-speed vision for 5G. Commercial services using the band have already been launched in the US. It will be used for millimetre-wave 5G in countries such as South Korea, Japan, India and Canada, as well. This implementation is done outside of the WRC-19 process under an existing mobile allocation.

Of course, just making the bands available to mobile operators isn’t enough. Outside of the WRC, national regulators will have to make critical decisions about the technical conditions, the timing of the release and what access to it should cost.

Licensed spectrum is essential to guarantee the necessary long-term heavy network investment needed for 5G and to deliver high quality of service. The risks surrounding network investment are significantly increased without the assurances of long-term, reliable, predictable, spectrum access.

The auctions of 5G spectrum that have taken place so far are a mixed bag. But there are good examples. For example, Finland’s 3.5 GHz auction showed a significant amount of spectrum made available at reasonable prices.

In the end, all these factors will have a major impact on the spectrum mobile operators will get to make use of and therefore, on the quality of 5G services. Governments and regulators that inflate 5G spectrum prices risk limiting 5G network investments – and thus the speed and coverage of 5G services – as well as drive up the cost of services.

There are already signs that some governments are taking steps to drive up the prices operators pay for 5G spectrum to worrying levels. Those that do the opposite, set stage for the most impressive mobile services ever seen.

You can read mire about what’s needed to make 5G a reality here.