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March 4, 2022updated 09 Mar 2022 9:00am

5G technology advances overshadowed by ongoing spectrum wrangling

Mobile World Congress saw many impressive 5G advancements unveiled. But the availability of spectrum remains a barrier to deployment.

By Sophia Waterfield

Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2022 returned to the Fira Gran Via in Barcelona this week after a two-year absence during the pandemic. 5G was once again a hot topic for delegates and vendors at the conference, but despite some impressive technological advancements, continued wrangling over spectrum availability is slowing the 5G roll-out. A rethink on the way this spectrum is allocated could be necessary, experts say.

A 5G robot barman surrounded by people during Mobile World Congress.
A 5G robot barman hard at work at the Telefonica booth at Mobile World Congress 22. 5G technology is racing ahead, but spectrum problems remain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Over 60,000 visitors returned to the conference, where companies including Samsung, Huawei, Qualcomm and others made big announcements around 5G devices, infrastructure and chipsets.

Huawei, for example, launched its range of 5G transmission equipment while Qualcomm launched 5G and artificial intelligence (AI) chips. The company’s Snapdragon X70 is the first 5G-modem RF to feature an integrated AI processor. It will offer 10-gigabit downloads over 5G, low latency and better power efficiency.  

Networking equipment maker Cisco also introduced its private 5G strategy during MWC 2022, targeting industries such as manufacturing, warehouse logistics, hospitality and venues, energy, mining, oil and gas and education.

How is 5G projected to transform enterprise? 

While consumer demand remains the main driver of 5G, enterprise interest is hotting up. According to CB Insights, commercial 5G services have already been deployed across more than 1,500 cities in more than 60 countries worldwide.

Sectors such as manufacturing, energy and utilities, agriculture, healthcare and others are predicted to be transformed by 5G through the Internet of Things (IoT). CB Insights says that IoT devices are projected to grow from 12 billion in 2020 to over 30 billion in 2025, more than four devices for every person in the world. The GSMA also forecasts that the percentage of 5G connections will grow to 25% by 2025, up from 8% last year.

We need to get smart about spectrum for 5G 

While excitement over 5G has certainly been brewing during MWC, it is still clear that the regulatory and policy environment is lagging behind the technology, particularly when it comes to spectrum allocation.

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According to Nitish Mittal, partner at Everest Group, while there have been “a lot of initiatives in the US and European markets” from regulators focused on spectrum allocation, they have not been met by “equal improvement in 5G adoption and applications.”  

“For mid-band 5G spectrum (generally in the range of 1-6 GHz), which the current auctions have focused on, the real impact is expected only by the end of 2022 or early 2023 as there’s a lag time to clear operational hurdles,” he told Tech Monitor. “For high-band spectrum (usually 24-40 GHz), the same hurdles don’t exist, but it needs more time to secure leases and real-estate approvals required to install base stations and enable usage.” 

This isn’t a new challenge when it comes to spectrum allocation and deployment for mobile networks. Even though it was originally launched in 2012, 4G spectrum allocation was still being fought for at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) in 2015, three years later.

5G appears to be following a similar pattern, and the issues come in the form of the deployment ecosystem, says Mittal. “To accelerate adoption, we will also need a more agile and responsive regulatory and enabling framework," he says. “This includes the role of regulators but also distribution/deployment issues such as logistics, hardware devices, and ubiquitous applications."

This isn’t the primary challenge with allocating spectrum, however. The lack of industry standards has also caused issues.  

“The industry has to start focusing on leveraging existing standards and technology, compared to creating new ones,” warns Mittal. “A great example here is Open Radio Access Network, or Open RAN, which is an open way to take a disaggregated approach to standard specifications, interfaces, and applications, which can help accelerate how different players in the ecosystem – telcos, cloud computing vendors, system integrators – come together and catalyse innovation on 5G use cases.”

Will we see change on 5G spectrum allocation?  

Held every three to four years and organised by the International Telecommunication Union, WRC will next be held in 2023. The conference is a forum to review and revise international radio regulations, and in between conferences, extensive studies and preparatory discussions among governments, regulatory authorities, network operators and equipment suppliers take place. Industry forums are also organised for spectrum users at a national, regional and global level. 

“WRC-23 is under increased industry pressure to change timelines but more importantly rethink its stance on mid-/low-band spectrum,” says Mittal. “The industry body for mobile network operators, GSMA, has been arguing that for a while to ensure sufficient spectrum in those ranges is available.  

But, he adds, “we are more likely to see WRC-23 action on availability and allocation mid-band spectrum (1-7 GHz) which is expected to comprise a larger share of the 5G market, vs accelerating deployment timelines across.”

5G spectrum allocation: what is at stake? 

According to GSMA Intelligence (GSMAi), 5G is expected to generate $960bn in GDP on a global basis by 2030. However, the association believes that 65% of the overall socio-economic value ($610bn USD) will come from 5G services relying on mid-band spectrum.

What’s more, GSMAi predicts that if industry capacity targets of 2 GHz of mid-band spectrum are not met, up to $360bn of economic impact could be lost. As part of its argument for mid-band spectrum for 5G, the GSMA explains that it recommends harmonised spectrum available in spectrum ranges 3.5 GHz, 4.8 GHz and 6 GHz.  

In another report, the GSMAi focuses on 6 GHz, explaining that “[it] can enable increased wide-area capacity in urban areas for enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-reliable low-latency communication and massive IoT, as well as the provision of fixed wireless access in small towns and villages. If additional mid-band spectrum is not made available, this could increase the cost of public mobile network deployments.” 

Not everyone agrees. Dean Bubley, an industry analyst and strategy adviser on spectrum policy, says that while it is reasonable to provide sufficient mid-band spectrum for public 5G, it is “important to justify the amount demanded” as well as the alternative options.  

 “The problem is the 5G industry's demand forecasts simply do not make sense,” Bubley explains on a LinkedIn post. “A lot of claims are based on a flawed model by a consulting firm, which uses a ludicrous set of assumptions.” He also states that the report relies on “very old [ITU] estimates of what 5G demand might look like”.

The mobile broadband spectrum allocation also faces pressure from other industries such as satellite and broadcast. Each industry will lobby politicians ahead of WRC-23 and make their case for why they should have spectrum allocation. 

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) has marked mid-band spectrum as a priority for WRC-23. The mobile industry might have a fight on its hands if it wants to use it for 5G.

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