GSMA calls for governments to license 6 GHz for 5G

5G space globe
According to the GSMA, the full speed and capabilities of 5G depend on the 6 GHz mid-band spectrum. (Getty Images)

The FCC in the U.S. last year allocated 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band for unlicensed uses, but the GSMA says the global future of 5G is at risk if governments fail to align on licensing 6 GHz spectrum for 5G. 

The GSMA acknowledged that governments are taking divergent paths when it comes to 6 GHz. China plans to use the entire 1200 MHz in the 6 GHz band for 5G, while Europe has split the band, with the upper part considered for 5G and a new 500 MHz tranche available for Wi-Fi. Africa and parts of the Middle East are taking a similar approach, it said.

“At the other extreme, the U.S. and much of Latin America have declared that none of this valuable resource will be made available for 5G, but rather will be offered to Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies,” the GSMA stated.

RELATED: FCC votes to make 1,200 MHz at 6 GHz available for unlicensed

“5G has the potential to boost the world’s GDP by $2.2 trillion,” said John Giusti, chief regulatory officer for the GSMA, in a statement. “But there is a clear threat to this growth if sufficient 6 GHz spectrum is not made available for 5G. Clarity and certainty are essential to fostering the massive, long-term investments in this critical infrastructure.”

In the U.S., the FCC put the emphasis on unlicensed for the 6 GHz band, but that doesn’t mean it’s off limits to wireless carriers who prefer to use licensed spectrum. They’re also free to use the 6 GHz band, either for Wi-Fi offload or technologies like LTE, which they fought hard for via Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) in the 5 GHz band.

Many nations are allowing whatever technology to operate in this spectrum, whether it be Wi-Fi or cellular, according to Chris DePuy, analyst at 650 Group. “I think there is nothing to prevent U.S. operators from using the 6 GHz band on an unlicensed basis,” he said via email.

At the same time, Wi-Fi 6E products are already shipping in the U.S., he noted. For example, Netgear began shipping 6E gear in the first quarter of 2021.

RELATED: AT&T slams FCC’s plans for 6 GHz band

Upper mid-band for 5G 

While T-Mobile currently boasts better propagation characteristics with its 2.5 GHz spectrum versus the C-band spectrum that Verizon and AT&T are using for their mid-band 5G services, it wasn’t that long ago that T-Mobile was lobbying for a slice of the 6 GHz spectrum for licensed purposes. Before its merger with Sprint closed last year, T-Mobile told the FCC that the 6 GHz band could fill in a missing piece in the nation’s mid-band spectrum for mobile wireless broadband.

The 6 GHz band is considered in the “upper mid-band spectrum” for 5G, according to a report by Coleago Consulting cited by the GSMA. As of mid-2020, upper mid-band spectrum used in most countries was in 3.4-3.8 GHz range.

“Upper mid-bands offer a good combination of propagation and capacity for cities,” the report stated. “Whilst lower mid-bands have better propagation characteristics, lower mid-bands have limitations in regard to available bandwidth. By contrast, the upper mid-bands have significant bandwidth and reasonable propagation characteristics. The larger amount of spectrum available in upper mid-bands corresponds to larger channel bandwidth supported by 3GPP standards, currently allowing for a 100 MHz wide channel and for maximum bandwidth of 400 MHz in carrier aggregation mode.”

The GSMA noted that the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2023 will provide the chance to harmonize the 6 GHz band across large parts of the planet and help develop the ecosystem.