What different 5G spectrum options mean for your business

With 5G, businesses can create a more diverse portfolio and unlock new networking opportunities. The radio spectrum that’s used defines the service characteristics each option can support. In this blog post, we explain the radio spectrum using terminology that any business leader can understand so you can ensure you adopt the best 5G services for your business.

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This blog post is not for those of you who are already able to explain C-band, sub-6, and mmWave in a way that your kid could understand. But for everyone else, it will help you to communicate to your teams what the 5G spectrum is in simple terms.

 

How radio spectrum affects your business

Most businesses pay little attention to the radio spectrum used for 4G services, and 4G has spoiled us with ubiquitous mobile network coverage and connectivity. We take mobile networks for granted and expect them to cover every place the sun touches, outdoors and indoors.

However, radio spectrum for 5G, includes a range of different frequencies, each with different characteristics. Each of the three variants comes to the market in materially different way, when it comes to performance and coverage. Combinations of two or three spectrum types are possible if they are deployed at the same radio site, but you cannot assume that’s the case from start.

The perceived speed has a strong correlation to the number of users sharing the capacity in any given area. The user experience for a larger number of users in a high-speed urban area and fewer users in a rural area with lower network speeds can be perceived as similar. Here we will focus more on the coverage dimension, which is a key factor in early deployments. A word of caution: the interpretation of some of the distance metaphors used vary for each of us, and they are included to illustrate distances rather than providing an absolute measure.

 

High band: for revolutionary creativity

The most talked about 5G option unlocks creativity in ways never seen before. This variant offers exceptional network speeds, both to and from users and their devices, over short distances. This type of 5G both enhances the mobile broadband services to your phone and allows for fiber-like speeds for fixed wireless broadband in areas not yet covered by fiber. 

As a rule of thumb, you can expect this option to provide Gigabit speeds over distances shorter than a mile. Either indoor or outdoor, but not reaching through walls and windows.

Network build-out with this spectrum type is highly selective. The high band spectrum is appropriate for adding outdoor capacity in urban zones with a high concentration of users, such as train and bus stations, central business districts and around landmarks. Secondly, it can provide fixed broadband to businesses and residential homes in suburban neighborhoods where fiber does not reach yet, and is deployed one neighborhood at a time. The third deployment type is high use places, where 5G can unlock new business value in manufacturing plants, warehouses, sports venues, universities, hospitals, and so forth – where wires are too static and alternative wireless technologies are too slow, too unreliable or to insecure.

Expect the high level of creativity made possible here to generate new business models, complementing classic mobile broadband models. One option is to bundle connectivity services and applications for experience centric innovations, to complement mobile broadband where all applications are delivered over the top.

If you are a triathlete, think swimming distance. If you are a golfer, imagine your high-precision short game. When you drive, this is where you are on three or four lane roads.

Network professionals talk about this area in terms of millimeter-wave (mmWave) access, small cells, line of sight, and high-band spectrum. We also talk about fixed wireless access to describe the fixed broadband option. The spectrum used is in the 24-47GHz range.  

 

Mid band: phenomenal capacity

5G also has the potential to provide a phenomenal capacity boost across a complete metropolitan area. The capacity boost comes from a combination of more efficient radio technology and broader radio channels in the air. The mid-band spectrum is well suited for delivering seamless metropolitan mobile network coverage and coverage along interstate highways. We expect to see this technology being used for both mobile and fixed purposes outside urban areas. Outside the US, this is the dominating spectrum category for 5G services.

Network deployment scenarios are similar to when 4G came to market 10 years ago, and the existing cell towers represent the logical locations for 5G upgrades. The spacing of radio towers falls with the reach of this spectrum to allow for seamless 5G coverage across a metropolitan area. 

As a rule of thumb, you can expect speeds in the region of hundred/s of megabits per seconds over a few miles on the mid-band 5G spectrum. Customers can have 5G access both outdoors and in favorable locations indoors. 5G also offers an increase in performance, compared to 4G in the same bands. 

Business model innovation plays a vital role in this area, with a combination of licensed and unlicensed spectrum in play. New spectrum actions will increase this opportunity. The unlicensed spectrum serves network spots using Wi-Fi, Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) and Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) technology. 

If you are a triathlete, this is your running distance. For golfers, these are your long irons. Cars are driving on two lane roads here.

Network professionals talk about this area in terms of sub-6 GHz, Re-farmed 3G and current 4G spectrum, Wi-Fi in 2.4, 5GHz and 6GHz bands, License Assisted Access (LAA), C-band, CBRS-GAA, CBRS-PAL, NR-U and Mid-band spectrum. We also talk about a combination of licensed and unlicensed spectrum. The spectrum used here is in the 1 GHz to 6 GHz range. 

 

Low band: exceptional coverage

The third and final piece of the 5G puzzle is about coverage. A journey where 4G, 5G and the combination of the two play a key role. This spectrum is the base for FirstNet, a national network serving first responders in the US, and the choice when targeting 95 percent of US farmland by 2025, as suggested by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US. The emphasis is on mobile applications and fixed broadband to the most remote households.

The network deployment scenario for this option is nationwide coverage, in metropolitan, micropolitan and rural areas. Low-band spectrum networks will be built out in a similar fashion to how 1G and 2G where introduced decades ago – with an initial focus on coverage.

As a rule of thumb, you can expect performance improvement over 4G, with a reach of up to 10s of miles. Networks using this spectrum will quickly reach a large portion of the population, and more than 50 percent of US citizens have been reached already in 2020. This spectrum provides both outdoor and indoor coverage from macro towers.

Business model innovations are critical as enablers for 5G in rural areas.  Both on the demand side, as communities come together to demand 5G at the same time, and subsidies easing the investment case. This spectrum is combined with the two previous types to create a seamless broadband experience.

If you are a triathlete, think biking distance. For golfers, Visualize driver and spoon territory. Drivers see yourself on a road with one lane in each direction.

Network professionals talk about this area in terms of sub-6 GHz, NB-IoT, Cat-M1 and Low-band spectrum. We also talk about carrier aggregation, dual connectivity and dynamic spectrum sharing for how to maximize available spectrum assets. The spectrum used here is in the 600 to 900 MHz range, coming from re-farming of legacy 1G/2G/3G mobile spectrum and new spectrum released from terrestrial TV services.

 

Licensed versus unlicensed spectrum

The final aspect to consider is the commercial terms for spectrum access. You can either use a licensed spectrum, where one license holder can deliver wireless services in a specific spectrum band and geographical area combination, or an unlicensed spectrum, which can be used free of charge for all providers in an area, without any rules on how to get access at any given time.

Licensed spectrum exists for all the three spectrum types described above. Parts of the spectrum auctions in the US are complete, and the next essential US auctions in 2020 will focus on the mid-band spectrum, for CBRS-PAL and C-band..

Wi-Fi and unlicensed 4G use the unlicensed mid-band spectrum in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. FCC in the US has decided to allocate 1,200MHz of 6GHz spectrum for unlicensed use, for use by Wi-Fi 6E and NR-U, with variations expected as regulators decide on local rules for the 6GHz band.

Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) is a shared spectrum and comes with both licensed and unlicensed options. CBRS-based services in the licensed spectrum have characteristics similar to classic mobile services, whereas the characteristics in the unlicensed spectrum is similar to Wi-Fi. 

Two types of business models have dominated wireless services. Either in the licensed mobile spectrum by communication service providers, or the unlicensed spectrum which can be used by anyone. The introduction of CBRS, network slicing, and the strong push for the adoption of cellular network technologies everywhere change the business model landscape – starting with shared spectrum for CBRS.

Business model innovations gravitate around four areas:

  • 5G services provided in a licensed spectrum, where all services get equal access to the available spectrum. Think 4G today.
  • 5G services offered in a licensed spectrum, divided into tailored network slices. A new model that is possible for 4G but not widely implemented yet.
  • 5G services provided in a licensed spectrum in a limited well-defined geographical area. Multiple business models are possible based on spectrum license ownership, network investment/purchase, and who is operating the network. One or up to three stakeholders can be involved, and this flexibility has created a dynamic market.
  • 5G services provided in the unlicensed spectrum serves as a complement to mobile and Wi-Fi services for non-performance sensitive business applications.

Network professionals talk about this area in terms such as of CBRS (PAL and GAA), LAA, NR-U, private cellular networks (LTE and 5G).

 

Want to know more?

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This post is part of our 5G Practitioner’s Guide where we outline 9 strategic conversations service providers should have in 2020 to accelerate 5G for business. Investing time in these topics will make you better equipped to engage in 5G dialogues with your business customers.  

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Download all episodes of this paper

A practitioners’ guide to accelerate 5G for business in 2020

5G builds on the first 4 mobile generations to accelerate the business world

5G pushes importance of first-mover advantages to new levels

Why 5G will be an intensive learning journey

What different 5G spectrum options mean for your business

How 5G is transforming the mobile ecosystem

Why 5G use places can be more valuable than use cases

Wireless business connectivity: what are the options?

Emerging business models for private cellular networks

How burgers can beef up your 5G use case focus

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