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Why the U.S. needs mid-band spectrum to win at 5G

“In the information age, the nation that leads the world in wireless technology wins. To keep America’s edge, we must accelerate our development and deployment of 5G—the next-generation wireless network that can move massive amounts of data at exponentially faster speeds than existing 4G LTE networks.” -- U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios

Senior Director of Spectrum Policy

Chicago O'Hare Airport

Senior Director of Spectrum Policy

Senior Director of Spectrum Policy

The US global lead in 4G had a significant impact on the U.S economy, revolutionizing the adoption of mobile devices in every aspect of American lives. It created jobs, lowered consumer costs, increased the U.S. GDP and supported an innovation engine for applications and devices.

5G is much more than just a key to growing our economy, it is also critical to our national security. And where 4G was the platform for new mobile application development, 5G is a platform with new high-capacity, low-latency, and high-speed capabilities that will lead to research and innovation advances in enhanced mobile broadband access, IoT, and automation. These capabilities will support a multitude of industries and new devices including utilities, AI, businesses, drones, schools, autonomous vehicles and public safety, while continuing to evolve traditional telecommunication services.

Investment in 5G buildout over mid-band spectrum is expected to be significant. Analysis Group has estimated that wireless providers will invest in excess of $154 billion on infrastructure to deliver 5G services over mid-band spectrum over a seven-year buildout period, resulting in $274 billion in additional GDP and 1.3 million new jobs, accounting for both direct and indirect effects.

The U.S. needs mid-band spectrum to win at 5G

While 5G offers tremendous investment opportunity, the critical component that is missing in the U.S. is access to mid-band spectrum. Mid-band offers a balance of low-band capabilities (favorable signal range and indoor penetration) and higher-band benefits (increased capacity for faster speeds and lower latency). Mid-band spectrum is well-suited for robust, wide-area macro 5G offerings.

Mid-band deployments can also use a smaller number of base stations to support traffic over larger coverage areas which reduces costs by decreasing the number of required base stations.

In terms of capacity, some 5G use cases will demand significantly higher peak data rates for faster connections and low latency, which will require wider channels than what is available in the lower bands. To provide a sufficient platform for wireless innovation and achieve gigabit-level speeds for mobile broadband service, channel bandwidths on the order of 100 MHz are needed. Access to unencumbered mid-band spectrum will accelerate U.S. leadership in 5G.

The global race to 5G

The global market is already taking action to make substantial amounts of mid-band spectrum available for 5G.  It is imperative for the United States to act quickly. The loss of wireless leadership can disrupt the innovation and development in the U.S. that was established with 4G.

Reliance on other mid-band spectrum will not solve the problem. While Ericsson supports the FCC’s actions on 3.5 GHz CBRS – and applauds that the auction is underway – the rules continue to limit the 3.5 GHz band’s utility for macro 5G deployments.  With its sharing arrangement, lower transmit power, and narrower channelization, the CBRS spectrum offers different capabilities and opportunities compared with, for instance, the C-Band. 

The U.S. is planning to auction 280 MHz of mid-band spectrum in December 2020 in the C-Band. The auction will cover frequencies in the 3.7-3.98 GHz range. This 280 MHz of spectrum will be cleared in two phases.

The first phase will clear 100 MHz of spectrum in the top 46 markets by December 2021. In comparison, a recent report prepared for CTIA by Analysys Mason analyzed 13 “benchmark” countries and found that an average of nearly 382 MHz of mid-band spectrum per country will be assigned to mobile service by the end of 2020 – significantly more than the amount of mid-band spectrum assigned to mobile service in the United States over the same period of time. Japan and China, for example, are projected to assign 700 MHz and 500 MHz, respectively, of mid-band spectrum to mobile service by the end of this year.

In Phase II, the remaining spectrum will be cleared by December 2023. By comparison, the Analysys Mason report further identified that the top five of these countries (China, Japan, UK, South Korea, Canada) are expected to assign on the average of 660 MHz of spectrum by the end of 2022. The U.S. will not have cleared its total 280 MHz of spectrum until one year later.

Action needed

The U.S. cannot risk falling further behind when it comes to 5G. What is needed is suitable and sufficient mid-band spectrum. All stakeholders, including NTIA and the FCC, must take action and work together, particularly in 3 and 4 GHz bands, which are key spectrum bands for 5G. 5G standards already exist in these bands, and the global community has, for the most part, focused here for developing the 5G ecosystem.

The lower 3 GHz (3.1-3.55 GHz) spectrum is currently under study by NTIA and offers important opportunities to increase the amount of mid-band spectrum available. NTIA has determined that the 3.45-3.55 GHz portion of this band is “a good candidate” to open for commercial operations, albeit under a sharing regime. The prospect of sharing in this band may place U.S. industry at a disadvantage in the global market through untenable requirements on spectrum that increase the cost and complexity of 5G in the band. Ultimately unique solutions tend to decrease market scale. In addition, 100 MHz of additional spectrum is insufficient to meet the needs of 5G.

Instead, Ericsson recommends that a minimum of 250 MHz of spectrum be made available between 3.3–3.55 GHz band suitable for macro 5G deployment. Access to this spectrum, however, will likely take years to realize. These are years that the industry can’t afford. It may be necessary to consider other means to access spectrum in this band that can be accomplished in a much shorter timeframe.

Meanwhile, NTIA and FCC should collaborate on a strategy in the 6-8.5 GHz band that maximizes time to market for 5G. Incumbent, non-federal, fixed point-to-point operations in the upper portion of the 6 GHz band could be relocated to the 7125-8500 MHz band, a federal band used for the very same fixed point-to-point services. A licensed approach to the upper portion of the band, moreover, would enable further global harmonization. Proactive allocation of this band would put the U.S. in the driver’s seat on setting global policy direction. The FCC decided recently to allocate the entire 6 GHz band (1200 MHz of spectrum) for unlicensed use. The United States is the only country that has decided to introduce unlicensed operations into the entirety of this valuable spectrum band. Based on the lack of valuable mid-band spectrum for 5G, the FCC should revisit this decision.


The U.S. needs a spectrum pipeline

An alternative strategy is needed that considers the longer-term spectrum needs of the country. As we move towards preliminary discussions on 6G, focus is likely to shift to the 7-24 GHz region as a new frontier, even as we progress the ability of radios and antenna systems to handle the performance requirements for a new generation. Simultaneously, the ability of systems to operate efficiently in millimeter-wave or sub-terahertz spectrum will be progressed.

The timeframes necessary for allocation and repurposing of spectrum are on the order of a decade. The path of technology evolution far outpaces spectrum access and regulation. What is needed is a spectrum pipeline to remove the uncertainty and to ensure that the U.S. leadership in wireless technology is not held hostage by a lack of spectrum.

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