The quality of mobile services in the future could suffer if national regulators and authorities don’t agree to allocate the latest tranche of available spectrum to network operators. Proposals by the tech sector to horde the full 6GHz band for Wi-Fi only will mean 5G growth will be throttled before it can fully reach its stride.
Telecoms World Cup
The future growth of 5G rests in the hands of national regulators and industry members congregating for four weeks at Dubai’s World Trade Centre in November 2023 for the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) – the telecommunications equivalent of the football world cup.
Every four years or so the WRC defines how wireless communications providers – using services including mobile, satellite, Wi-Fi, radio astronomy and radars – ensure radio compatibility across locations and frequency bands. As more devices and services are connected, pressure mounts on freeing up more spectrum.
On the agenda for November is the hotly contested upper 6GHz spectrum band. This portion of spectrum is desired by both the Wi-Fi and mobile industries. It operates within the mid-band frequency range which makes it ideally suited to 5G since it provides users with a blend of greater coverage and fast speeds. Organisations representing the Wi-Fi industry, driven principally by the U.S. tech sector, also desire it due to the additional channels it offers over and above the existing 2.4GHz, 5GHz and lower 6GHz spectrum used by home broadband.
The problem is that much of the Wi-Fi industry, especially large router vendors and Big Tech companies wishing to build up private local area networks, want the entire 6GHz band all to themselves. This would exempt them from any regulatory licence and would not guarantee provision for public mobile use.
Call for a fair and balanced approach to 6GHz spectrum
Vodafone is calling for 6GHz spectrum to be shared equally between mobile operators and Wi-Fi providers. That way businesses, public sector organisations and individuals across Europe get the best of both worlds. They can be assured that 5G grows with demand, in addition to being able to snap up the latest Wi-Fi router for the office or home.
A fair share approach may seem logical, but US regulators have already nailed their colours to the Wi-Fi mast. Back in 2018, US regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated nearly all the 6GHz band to unlicensed uses, including Wi-Fi. The decision is irreversible. If 5G networks in the US become congested there is no going back. Also, if, as it appears likely, other major economies allocate some 6GHz for 5G, then it could leave US telecom vendors and carriers at a disadvantage, because their equipment may not be built with that spectrum in mind.
The insatiable appetite for mobile data and internet access by both the private and public sectors and individuals show no signs of abating. However, spectrum availability to meet this demand looks bleak.
Vodafone and other mobile network operators believe that if demand continues its current upward trajectory, and more suitable spectrum isn’t allocated, then Europe’s towns and cities will run critically low on network capacity within the next five years. Public mobile services to consumers and businesses will be significantly impacted. It also will do little to help Europe meet its ambitious digitalisation targets for 2030, including the aim of covering all populated areas with 5G. The clock is ticking.
There is another major factor to consider. 6GHz is the last remaining block of mid-band radio spectrum that can be harmonised across different geographical regions in this decade and perhaps beyond. Harmonisation of 5G spectrum matters as it allows both businesses and consumers to use mobile services in more places, at a lower cost and on the same equipment. It also bolsters security since networks and equipment work to the same common standards. And no-one wants to return to the days of carrying a separate phone for each continent.
Achieving an optimal outcome for digital consumers and industry requires the future benefits of 6GHz spectrum to be safeguarded for both public cellular and private local area networks. The GSMA last year predicted that 5G in the mid-band spectrum range could add more than $610 billion to global GDP in 2030.
In June 2021, the European Commission announced its decision to make 480 MHz of spectrum – nearly half of the spectrum within the 6GHz band – available for licence-exempt use, principally by Wi-Fi networks. The remaining 700 MHz within the upper 6GHz band currently remains under consideration by EU national authorities. Allocating an additional 700 MHz for short-range Wi-Fi use would be more than the entire spectrum assigned to mobile networks in Europe to date for wide-area services.
6GHz really is the only headline band. Lower spectrum bands are available and useful to improve basic coverage but do not provide sufficient capacity to fully support the growth of 5G, and the case for deployments of higher frequency millimetre bands is very challenging, economically, and practically, beyond very dense traffic hot-spot areas. Mid bands are therefore essential to maintain and enhance the service requirements on mobile networks.
The alternative is to face a massive build programme of new radio transmission sites in cities, which would significantly impact the cost of services to customers and increase carbon emissions. Analysts recently estimated such a scenario would lead to an increase in network carbon emissions over five years in one city alone equivalent to that of a vehicle travelling up to 800 million kilometres.
Strong 5G for the future
As national administrations and telecom industry members gather to review and update the global use of radio frequencies in Dubai later this year, the world would do well to hold its breath. The digital transformation that world leaders envision, particularly within Europe which is behind China and the US on 5G, will simply not take place without a strong 5G mobile telecommunications infrastructure.
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