Spectrum is considered the lifeblood of the global communications network. Today, the spectrum pool remains controlled by government oversight, rather than market demand. This inhibits the most economically efficient use of spectrum, as government regulators cannot accurately predict which specific services will be in the greatest demand going forward.
A market framework where spectrum is allocated to those services most in demand leads to the highest level of innovation as more players will be motivated by being first to market or coming up with novel uses of spectrum. This calls for administrations to both permit and promote the growth of competitive market forces in the management of spectrum.
Under such a framework, regulators would instead play a role in determining how best to apportion spectrum among mutually exclusive services and among licensed and unlicensed services; maintaining services for the public welfare; ensuring a level playing field among competitors; protecting networks from interference; and protecting the public's health from any potentially harmful effects of radio transmission.
The release of spectrum pools must be driven by such factors as types of specific services offered, technologies used, consumer pricing and network performance. And voracious growth in mobile-data demand necessitates the need for the release of new spectrum pools.
This demand has been on a steady path of acceleration over the past few years. Charting the growth of mobile data traffic, starting with 3G and into 4G, shows that it reached 7.2 exabytes per month at the end of 2016, up from 4.4 exabytes per month at the end of 2015. And predictions have it on an accelerated upward trend, reaching 49 exabytes per month by 2021 and 71 exabytes per month by 2022.
But in order to get there, we must first see an abundance of additional spectrum released. Of course, the exact amount depends on such factors as application types, deployment configuration, radio access technology, spectrum efficiency, geographic location and quality of service requirements. And whether we are talking higher data frequencies or lower frequencies, demand is coming from every angle.
Addressing the former, 5G introduces a unique lens from which to view the conversation of spectrum. The examination of the potential spectrum bands across all bands shows that all spectrum is suitable for 5G applications. And higher-frequency radio spectrum is considered to be particularly important for fixed 5G. But while 5G necessitates the availability of newly licensed spectrum pools, it has been said that most spectrum resources below and above 6 GHz will not be repurposed for 5G in the immediate future. This makes it important that other licensed spectrum bands below 6 GHz be made available for 5G applications in the near future.
Telecom has identified certain chunks of radio spectrum as being critically important for 5G, such as mid-frequency bands or “mid-bands” include both 3.5GHz and 3.7-4.2GHz ranges, or high-frequency or millimeter wave (mmWave) bands include 24-37GHz ranges. Some of these spectrum resources are shared spectrum that require clearing and/or development of sharing mechanisms. This is where regulators and government agencies must step in to assure that a reasonable amount of licensed spectrum is made available for initial 5G deployments.
Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in early 2018, U.S. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced that the commission is prepared to make 5G-ready wireless spectrum available through auctions (the FCC has already approved resales of existing 28GHz and 39GHz spectrum held by satellite providers). According to Pai, the FCC has already allocated 150Mhz of industry-shared spectrum within the 3.5GHz band. This would allow 5G devices and other applications to use it.
Sound spectrum policies form the basis upon which companies make decisions and, in turn, help drive the demand for products and services. Such policies should be reliant on market forces, rather than government mandates; streamlined spectrum assignment mechanisms that promote the efficient use of the spectrum and the introduction of new technologies to the marketplace; and active participation in the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and other international and regional forums with the view toward building a global consensus on important telecom issues.
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Spectrum auctions are in the news headlines but we in the industry know that the reallocation of spectrum bands via spectrum auctions will not be enough to sustain the growth of bandwidth requirements over the next few years.