More countries may follow the United States' lead in using millimeter wave spectrum after the International Telecommunication Union officially identified new spectrum bands for mobile services.
The International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, earmarked 17.25 GHz of new mmWave spectrum for mobile services in the recently concluded World Radiocommunication Conference 2019, or WRC-19, held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, from Oct. 28 to Nov. 22. Prior to WRC-19, 1.9 GHz of spectrum in mid- and low-frequency bands were already available for mobile services.
The specific ranges in the new resolution were for the following bands: 26 GHz (24.25 GHz-27.5 GHz), 40 GHz (37 GHz-43.5 GHz), 46 GHz (45.5 GHz-47.0 GHz), 48 GHz (47.2 GHz-48.2 GHz) and 66 GHz (66.0 GHz-71.0 GHz).
In our September coverage of ITU Telecom World 2019 in Budapest, Hungary, we highlighted how mobile services had overlapping claims with other services in the contested mmWave bands. Two opposing camps emerged prior to WRC-19: the pro-5G camp seeking to maximize the footprint of 5G in mmWave spectrum bands, and the pro-passive-services camp lobbying for the protection of essential services in the same bands.
The U.S. strongly advocated for the pro-5G side. Prior to the summit, the Federal Communications Commission called for less stringent buffers in the 24 GHz band to maximize the available spectrum for 5G. This is in line with the U.S. push to become the world leader in 5G; the FCC already finished auctioning the 24 GHz band in March, followed by the 28 GHz band in June.
Tom Power, senior vice president and general counsel of CTIA-The Wireless Association, said ahead of the conference that reports showed the U.S. has the fastest 5G peak speeds "because the U.S. was the first to deploy mmWave. The benefits of using this spectrum are clear but only through global harmonization at WRC-19 will all regions gain the greatest value."
On the other side of the fence are Europe, Russia and China, which pushed for stricter buffers to protect the stakes of commercial and weather-sensing satellite systems in the contested bands. Russia is one of the most vocal campaigners for global non-geostationary satellite services in the ITU.
The pro-5G camp dominated the duel even before WRC-19, as Latin American, African and Arab states together with the GSM Association argued that passive services can still exist alongside 5G services in the mmWave bands. Head of Spectrum at GSMA Brett Tarnutzer even called for Europe "to join the U.S. in taking a pro-5G stance at WRC-19 to protect its digital future."
Ultimately, the pro-5G camp won at WRC-19 after the ITU awarded most of the contested blocks in the 24 GHz band to mobile services. Portions of the 50 GHz band that were originally considered for mobile services were, however, awarded instead to non-geostationary and geostationary satellite services.
The ITU's landmark resolution could usher in a new era for 5G for mobile operators, telco infrastructure companies and regulators alike.
The U.S. is quite isolated in its use of mmWave for most commercial 5G deployments. Our 5G trials and launches update in July showed that only four of the 21 markets surveyed (the U.S., Italy, South Korea and Uruguay) have deployed commercial 5G services in frequency bands above 24 GHz.
This is in stark contrast with commercial deployments in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and the Middle East, which mostly use the 3.5 GHz band, with China as the most prominent figurehead. Some emerging markets, such as Indonesia, have explicitly stated that they would wait for the results of the WRC-19 before deciding on specific bands for 5G.
With the ITU's stamp of approval on mmWave spectrum, more markets worldwide may also consider the U.S. mmWave 5G model alongside China's more popular mid-frequency 5G model.
MmWave bands are already popular among operators trialing 5G. In our study, 55 out of the 116 operators that have trialed 5G from 2017 used spectrum above 24 GHz. The 28 GHz band was the most popular mmWave band, with trials from at least 35 operators worldwide. Other popular frequencies in our tracker included the 26 GHz and 39 GHz bands and the 70 GHz-80 GHz range.
The high throughput benefits of mmWave spectrum come with propagation downsides, and this inevitably means 5G deployment in such bands would require network densification solutions. This could lift small-cell and indoor/outdoor distributed antenna systems, or DAS penetration in most markets. Tower companies would be at the forefront of this revolution and we may see increased co-location and tenancy rates per site as operators attempt to densify their networks.
The poor propagation characteristics of mmWave spectrum also spell a change in regulatory policies towards spectrum. Although currently allocated mmWave spectrum in Italy, South Korea and the U.S. still follow the common nationwide licensing scheme, we may see more industry-specific, or even apparatus-specific, localized 5G spectrum licenses in the future, such as what Germany did this year.
Wireless Investor is a regular feature from Kagan, a media market research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence, providing exclusive research and commentary.
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