Nokia ready with C-band gear on heels of 5G spectrum auction

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Nokia’s C-band gear will be available this quarter and uses the vendor’s latest AirScale radio access products.

Following the blockbuster first phase of the U.S. C-band spectrum auction, Nokia says it's ready to support carriers’ 5G buildouts with a portfolio for both indoor and outdoor coverage.  

Nokia’s C-band gear will be available this quarter and uses the vendor’s latest AirScale radio access products.

Winners of the FCC’s Auction 107 are still unknown, but the three major U.S. operators participated, vying for spectrum in the 3.7-3.98 GHz portion, alongside Dish Network, cable companies, and others. With licenses covering 280-megahertz of mid-band spectrum up for grabs, the clock phase ended with nearly $81 billion in gross proceeds – not including approximately $14 billion for accelerated clearing payments and relocation costs for satellite companies. 

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The assignment phase of Auction 107 starts February 8.

Some analyst estimates have pegged carrier spending for the key mid-band frequencies in double-digit billions well beyond expectations – particularly Verizon ($35 billion) and AT&T ($20), according to Cowen.

RELATED: Nokia touts 5G C-band trial in Dallas

Nokia touted its C-band product suite Tuesday, noting it covers a variety of deployment scenarios, with massive MIMO antennas, hybrid antennas that combines passive and active radio platforms into one unit, macro remote radio heads and small cell solutions.  

The Finnish vendor called out the need for flexibility, saying it has a wide range of C-band gear that work for both 5G non-standalone (NSA) and standalone (SA) networks, traditional or full cloud-based implementations, and support for open RAN products.

RELATED: Nokia unveils 5G cloud RAN, giving O-RAN a push

U.S. operators initially launched 5G in NSA mode, which leans on 4G LTE anchor in the core. But shifts to standalone are in the works. In August, T-Mobile was the first in the U.S. to launch a nationwide SA 5G network.

Nokia has supplied all three major U.S. operators, and recently secured a new multi-billion 5-year network deal with T-Mobile. In September Nokia planned C-band trials with U.S. Cellular. The vendor did lose share at one large North American customer, thought to be Verizon, when Nokia was unable to convert its 4G footprint to 5G. Samsung nabbed a $6.6 billion contract with Verizon last year and introduced new C-band radio and compact core products in October.  

C-band spending and pace of deployment

While other countries have deployed C-band (3.4-4.2 GHz) for 5G, Auction 107 represents U.S. carriers’ main near-term chance to win a significant amount of new mid-band airwaves for 5G.

“Now that the U.S. has completed its C-Band spectrum auction, the carriers are turning their attention towards capitalizing on their new spectrum assets and rolling out new 5G services,” said Tommi Uitto, president of Mobile Networks at Nokia, in a statement. “Nokia has a comprehensive range of solutions ready-to-go that cover all customer requirements and scenarios.”

While Nokia might be ready to supply, with auction spending that smashed expectations, there’s been questions about whether it could hinder the pace of rollouts. The first 100-megahertz of C-band is expected to be cleared later this year, and the remaining 180-megahertz by the end of 2023.

In a recent interview with FierceWireless, Dan Hays, US TMT Corporate Strategy Leader at PwC’s Strategy& consulting practice, said it’s really two sides of the same coin and in some ways depends on who the winners are.

RELATED: C-band nears $70B, rockets above prior US spectrum auctions

“I think that the looming question is once all of the checks have been written for C-band spectrum will there be any money left to actually build cell sites with it,” Hays said. The answer isn’t clear yet, but he acknowledged like many others, auction 107 far exceeded PwC’s expectations.

Some conclusions, he noted, are safer to expect. 

“The results of the C-band auction are surely going to increase the debt load of the winners, and as a result it will put pressure on pricing and it will put pressure on future capital spending,” Hays commented. “That said, we expect that the winners from C-band auction and other mid-band auctions will need to move to deploy that spectrum at least in dense urban and suburban areas.”

As a result, he thinks that could lead to a further split in the amount of coverage for rural versus highly populated areas, where only the densest locations are the ones built out . 

RELATED: Crown Castle could be first to see fruits from C-band – analyst

Recon Analytics founder Roger Entner previously told Fierce that he doesn’t think carrier’s spending at C-band would hurt 5G rollouts, noting it’s the best possible time to go into debt for the purpose of buying spectrum.

Spectrum in the C-band range offers a favorable mix of delivering both coverage and capacity for 5G. Although it’s still higher-band than the 2.5 GHz spectrum T-Mobile is moving quickly to deploy, C-band is largely seen as crucial for AT&T and Verizon to catch up and compete with T-Mobile.

In a Tuesday note to investors following Verizon’s Q4 results today, MoffettNathanson analysts said they don’t agree with suggestions pricey auction bills will pressure carriers, including Verizon, to deploy spectrum as fast as they can and accelerate capital spending, calling the idea raised by some “nonsense.”

“Deploying their new C-Band spectrum, which by any reasonable definition is very high frequency spectrum, will be very expensive,” wrote senior analyst Craig Moffett. “In the real world, higher leverage will mean that capital spending will, by necessity, be pinched and stretched. Lower capital spending will mean it will take longer to deploy their C-Band spectrum, which, in turn, will mean Verizon will be slower to catch up to T-Mobile."