Global mobile industry body GSMA says policymakers need to license 2 GHz on average of upper mid-band spectrum to operators to help lower costs and reduce environmental impact of 5G, while achieving data speed requirements set by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The conclusion is from research commissioned by GSMA and conducted by Coleago consulting, including a look at 36 cities between 2025-2030, to assess how much spectrum is needed to deliver on ITU IMT-2020 requirements for 5G of reliable 100 Mbps download and 50 Mbps upload speeds.
The report (PDF) focuses on GSMA’s vision for mid-band spectrum over the 5-year period. GSMA’s recommendations to governments and regulators include basing spectrum decisions on factors like population density and how much fiber has been rolled out in certain locations; considering demands when 5G usage is reaching its peak; and support for globally harmonized bands.
While many global operators are initially using mid-band spectrum in the 3.3-3.8 GHz range, longer-term GSMA targeted additional airwaves including in the 3.3-4.2 GHz range, 4.8 GHz, and the 6 GHz band.
Exactly how much more spectrum in each of the major cities studied varies (with an average of 2 GHz), but the report noted “the amount required is still far greater than what is currently planned for release.”
According to GSMA, more spectrum will be needed as the “activity factor” (or assumption of percentage of human and machine connections that need 100Mbps down/50 Mbps up during busiest usage hours) rises over time.
“This is likely as 5G usage growth is driven by smart cities, including intelligent transport and connected video cameras, and by consumers and businesses for mobile use for FWA,” the study authors wrote.
New York needs more mid-band
Out of the 36 cities analyzed, New York was third for in terms of needing more mid-band spectrum, behind Hong Kong and Lagos.
Along with population density and the expected amount of available spectrum by 2025, the analysis by Coleago based spectrum needs by city on factors including the geographical distance of base stations, 5G technology used like MIMO upgrades; percentage of high-band, indoor small cells and Wi-Fi offload; and the cellular network activity level.
In the U.S., New York is projected to need a total of 3130 MHz of mid-band spectrum for 5G over the 5-year period on the high-end, or 2580 MHz for the lower-end estimate.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) already auctioned 70 MHz of priority access license (PAL) in the shared 3.5 GHz CBRS band while making 80 MHz available for general authorized access (GAA) users. And 280-megahertz in the 3.7-3.98 GHz range was available at the blockbuster C-band auction. A third upper mid-band spectrum auction for 100-megahertz in the 3.45-3.55 GHz band is scheduled for October.
Industry groups like CTIA and 5G Americas are among those that for several years have called attention to and urged action on more mid-band frequencies for licensed mobile use in order to stay competitive in 5G.
Earlier this year the GSMA called on governments to license the 6 GHz band – one which the U.S. took a different approach. In 2020 the FCC made 1200-megahertz available for unlicensed use like Wi-Fi (although carriers could still tap the frequencies too with technologies like LAA or 5G NR-U).
Densification not enough, spectrum improves FWA
Rolling out more cell cites won’t be enough to overcome mid-band spectrum deficits, as a greater number would be needed, leading to increased deployment costs that are ultimately passed to customers and higher carbon emissions, according to GSMA.
Looking at the three cities of Paris, Mumbai, and Mexico City, the study found they would need between 27,505 and up to 178,236 additional small cells to cover a mid-band spectrum shortfall of 800-1000 MHz. This would increase deployment costs in each city ranging from $782 million in Paris to $5.8 billion in Mexico City, with relative network costs rising three-to-five times over 10 years. The report found additional spectrum would lower the carbon footprint of networks by two-to-three times without those extra small cells.
A final focus for GSMA is fixed wireless access, which service providers, including the U.S. are looking to extend coverage into the home and service to more rural populations or smaller towns.
People using broadband at home typically require more capacity than a mobile phone and by allocating 2 GHz of more mid-band the report says operators could serve more houses per cell site with FWA. It estimates a single 5G FWA 5G cell site using a standard of 400-megahertz upper mid-band spectrum could serve 90 households. Add an additional 1 GHz of spectrum and that number increases to 315 households. Add 2 GHz and it increases to 540 households.
“This dramatically improves the business case for these services and thus the ability to widen broadband access through affordable FWA 5G,” the report states.
GSMA pointed to the World Radio Conference (WRC-23) coming up in a couple of years as a key opportunity for harmonized mid-bands and encouraged coordinated regional decisions on spectrum.