Editor’s Corner—Does the race to 5G really matter?

5G sign
South Korea is planning June auctions for both midband and millimeter wave and China has a bunch of midband spectrum queued up. (Fierce Wireless)
Monica Alleven Editor's Corner

Generally, there’s a feeling that being first to 5G is a laudable and worthwhile goal. But is it really a “race” to 5G?

U.S. carriers don’t compete with Chinese or Korean carriers for their customers. Is this “race” just an obsession by the media or a situation manufactured by industry to prod lawmakers and regulators into giving them the spectrum and zoning rules that they want?

An Analysys Mason report commissioned by CTIA and released last week showed that China holds a narrow lead in overall 5G readiness ahead of South Korea and the United States. But CTIA, doing its job, pointed out that there’s still time to correct the situation if policymakers in the U.S. act fast enough.

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Peter Jarich, head of GSMAi, the research and consulting unit of the GSMA, questioned whether it’s fair to compare the U.S. to China in the “race to 5G.”

“We’re not competing with Korea. We’re not competing with China,” he said. For instance, one could argue that Europe has admitted to losing the race to 4G and therefore lost its position of power in mobility, but it still is home to two of the biggest infrastructure vendors.

“To pitch this on just being late or early with the technology, I’m struggling, particularly going forward, how much that matters,” he said.

RELATED: CTIA: Study shows China with narrow lead over U.S. in race to 5G

For example, it’s unlikely Americans are going to start moving to China because it has 5G and the U.S. doesn’t. The question becomes how long is a gap acceptable.

“At what point does innovation really grow somewhere else much stronger than the U.S. because they have a foundation of 5G?,” he queried. “I do think there’s some potential merit of hey, even though Verizon isn’t competing with China Mobile, those foundational technologies do set some base for innovation. So we can’t lag. But can we lag by six months, a year? That’s the question,” he said.

Nokia’s North American CTO Mike Murphy presented at CTIA’s Race to 5G Summit event last week and pointed out some good reasons to take this race very seriously. He told FierceWirelessTech that he doesn’t know if months make a difference, but certainly a year or two would make a big difference. 

And, he added, there’s a sense of urgency that the U.S. needs to act. There are three aggressors: China, South Korea and Japan. Of them, China and Korea look to be the first ones to launch.

In China, the MIIT confirmed in 2017 that it had reserved spectrum in the 3.3-3.6 GHz and 4.8-5.0 GHz ranges for 5G, with the 3.3-3.4 GHz range limited to indoor use. Reports also indicate that China is likely to assign the 3.5-4.2 GHz range to 5G use in the future, subject to coordination with existing satellite uses, according to Analysys Mason. We don’t know for sure, but a good guess is the millimeter wave spectrum in China may come in 2020.

As for South Korea, it just announced June auctions for both midband and millimeter wave. It’s making 280 megahertz of midband (3.5 GHz) available and 2400 megahertz of millimeter wave at 28 GHz. The government there also recently mandated that operators share 5G infrastructure to reduce the costs of rolling out the technology.

Now let’s consider what’s going on in the United States. Given that any spectrum that’s being made available nowadays is linked to 5G, the United States’ incentive auction for 600 MHz spectrum can be interpreted as a good thing. T-Mobile in particular has been hard at work getting that spectrum ready for its 5G network. It’s considered low-band, which is always good from a coverage perspective.

Procedures are in motion to commence the 28 GHz auction on Nov. 14, and while there’s not a lot of that spectrum, that auction will be immediately followed by the 24 GHz auction. So, we’re covered for the time being on the lower 600 MHz band spectrum and the higher bands, although some carriers would ideally like to see a lot more millimeter wave bands get included in one big single auction.

Where things start to fall apart is in the midband and that’s why there’s been so much interest in the 37-42 GHz band, Murphy said. The popular thinking is the country needs 100 megahertz of exclusive use midband spectrum per operator in order to do something significant in 5G.  

While the U.S. has been out ahead on millimeter wave, the challenge with that technology is that it covers a very small area and needs a lot of sites. The sites are different as well—not placed on towers like we’re accustomed to in the lower bands, but rather on buildings, street lights and "street furniture." Nokia’s view is it takes an average of six to 24 months to get sites approved in the U.S., whereas getting sites placed in Korea or China is more on the order of weeks or months.

With midband spectrum, carriers in the U.S. could use a lot of their existing sites because the spectrum can encompass a broader coverage area than the higher bands; therefore, in that sense, it could be put to use faster.   

“I don’t always agree with everybody but I do agree this midband is important just because you can deploy it faster and less costly,” Murphy said. “A new site costs money too. It is true that we most definitely are behind China, Korea and Japan in the timing of that.”

FCC commissioners seem to be well aware of the need for more midband spectrum. They’ve been hammering away at the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band for a while now; the rules may finally get finalized this summer. The General Authorized Access (GAA) portion of that band could kick in this year, but the Priority Access License (PAL) portion, which is the part everyone’s been fighting about, likely won’t get teed up for auction until next year.

RELATED: FCC’s O’Rielly suggests freeing up 200-300 megahertz of C-Band spectrum

So you can see why there’s great interest in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, which is also called the C-Band and one that satellite players are trying to protect for their own interests. Last week, Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly suggested the U.S. find 200, 300 or maybe even 400 megahertz of that spectrum for mobile terrestrial uses, which is more than the 100 megahertz that the satellite stakeholders were proposing.

He pointed out that there are a lot of unknowns around this spectrum and the FCC needs to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) this summer to explore all the relevant issues. Those who have been itching for something to happen for unlicensed uses with the 6 GHz band also should be encouraged because he said the two are tied together and getting a move on both of them this summer would be a good idea.

In some ways, it’s not fair to compare the U.S. to China, where the mobile service providers are owned by the government. But the Analysys Mason report looked at 5G readiness by focusing on two key governmental areas: spectrum availability, licensing and deployment plans; and proposals aimed at streamlining planning processes for 5G infrastructure, including favorable mobile siting and licensing policies—the very areas for which CTIA lobbies.

It's also worth noting that:

  1. It’s natural to compare the U.S. to other regions of the world when we’re talking about a new generation of wireless. We certainly have compared the U.S. to Europe in the 3Gs and the 4Gs, and 5G is a much more significant migration than these previous ones.
  2. There’s been way more tension between China and the U.S. in recent months and we all have heard about the ramifications for Huawei and ZTE.

But if the question comes down to how much time can we lag and still be leading in 5G—that’s also not so clear. The bipartisan Airwaves Act calls for certain midband spectrum to be auctioned no later than Dec. 31, 2020, and that frankly seems kind of ambitious given how long it’s been taking to get a compromise in the 3.5 GHz band. It also sounds like quite a long time from now if midband spectrum is so important in the race to 5G.

Commissioner O’Rielly’s sense of urgency in getting more spectrum teed up is certainly understandable, and he’s not alone. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, has been calling for more auctions and last week suggested the FCC take a simple approach: publish a calendar so everyone knows what 5G spectrum is going to auction and when.

O’Rielly also noted during the American Enterprise Institute appearance that he favors fully exploring a market-based approach for 3.7-4.2 GHz rather than letting government figure it out (he said the 600 MHz auction was under discussion for a good six years before anything happened.)

“We don’t have a long time,” he said, which pretty much sums it up. - Monica | @fiercewrlsstech | @malleven33

Editor's Corners are opinion columns written by a member of the Fierce editorial team. They are edited for balance and accuracy.