What kind of spectrum do carriers want for 5G? 'All of it'

SAN FRANCISCO—What kind of spectrum is AT&T looking to as it plots it 5G strategies?

“All of it,’’ according to Hank Hultquist, AT&T’s vice president of federal regulatory.

And AT&T isn’t alone in taking a holistic view of the role spectrum will play as carriers roll out 5G services and technologies in the coming years. Indeed, that was the overriding theme during a round table discussion Wednesday at Mobile World Congress Americas focusing on airwaves and next-generation networks.

5G “is not a particular band; it’s more a weaving together,” said Julie Knapp, chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology. Rather, it will see carriers use a wide variety of wavelengths as they build next-generation networks, using the most appropriate spectrum and antennas in specific areas based on multiple factors.

Charla Rath, vice president of wireless policy development for Verizon Wireless, also agreed, describing 5G as “a whole different way" of how we look at the network. She added that the nation’s largest wireless carrier is eyeing two specific chunks of airwaves, however.

“Verizon’s excited about 28 (GHz) and 39 (GHz),” Rath said. "We think there’s a lot there; it would be good to get it out. … The idea is to get as much spectrum as possible.””

Definitions vary regarding low-, mid- and high-band spectrum, primarily because the ceiling continues to be raised when it comes to wavelengths: Spectrum that was once regarded as too high has increasingly been viewed as optimal in some use cases due to technological advances. 

Low-band spectrum such as 600 MHz and 700 MHz airwaves were considered “beachfront” assets just a few years ago due to propagation qualities, enabling carriers to extend their coverage in suburban and rural areas, and to penetrate building walls. But mid- and high-band spectrum has become a focal point for carriers recently due to its ability to transmit more data at faster speeds—key factors as operators look to increase capacity in urban areas. 

And just as 5G won’t be limited to a few specific spectrum bands, it won’t be limited to a handful of use cases, speakers agreed. Next-generation networks will enable a huge variety of applications and services, from obscure IoT offerings to autonomous vehicles.

So explaining the value proposition to end users—whether they’re consumers or businesses—can be difficult.

“I think there’s a belief that (with 5G) we’ll see all kinds of new things,” Hultquist said. “But there’s also an understandable not-quite ability to say what 5G will be.”