Why a national spectrum strategy is crucial for US leadership
The U.S. commercial wireless industry has a severe deficit of mid-band spectrum to serve the immediate needs of 5G. Exponential capacity demand will precede commercial 6G deployments, fueling further demand for high-capacity, low-latency wireless services. To lead the world in wireless, the U.S. must influence and allocate from globally harmonized spectrum bands for 5G and 6G. This will require a spectrum pipeline, something that the U.S. lacks.
Unfortunately, the United States is falling further behind other nations in the amount of spectrum allocated for full-power licensed use. There are three main reasons:
First, the amount of spectrum allocated to commercial wireless in the mid-band range between 3 GHz and 8.5 GHz is approximately 450 megahertz. This is in stark contrast with countries such as Japan and China, who have average allocations of over 650 megahertz in that frequency range.
Second, U.S. spectrum allocations are often not aligned with international allocations. This is mostly because the federal government retains 12 times the amount of spectrum in the 3–8.5 GHz range as is licensed for commercial use. Globally harmonized spectrum allocations enable a broader ecosystem for technology, equipment and engineering expertise. This results in many benefits, such as economies of scale, lower costs for deployment, rapid rollout of new services and enhanced competition among suppliers. Moreover, U.S. conformance with globally harmonized band allocations can strengthen U.S. leadership in the global telecommunications ecosystem, contributing directly to U.S. technological security. A lack of alignment means that U.S. networks will not be deployed in global bands, with a risk that innovation will be concentrated in other countries. Furthermore, there will be a risk that other countries will have an undesirable degree of influence on the wireless supply chain and standards.
Third, America lacks a spectrum pipeline that would help direct investment in current and future networks. This essentially means that the FCC has not designated any bands officially for commercial availability with associated timelines, something sought by the mobile telecommunications industry, especially focusing on the range 3–8.5 GHz in the near term and on suitable bands within the range 8.5-15 GHz in the 6G timeframe2.
Risks associated with a deficit of mid-band spectrum
The deficit of spectrum impacts the ability of mobile providers to serve the surging demand for wireless services from consumers and enterprises. In 2022, the average data consumption per subscriber was recorded as 20 GB/month. Ericsson predicts that this will increase to an average usage of 58 GB per month per subscriber by 2028. Without adequate spectrum to deliver the required capacity, providers will not be able to meet this demand with a reasonable ROI.
What’s more, operators and the overall ecosystem will have limitations in scaling new use cases that require significant bandwidth. Many forms of extended reality (XR) applications will need significant improvement of uplink and downlink capacity. This would limit the technological and economic benefits that those innovations might have delivered. The secret to the incredible success of the U.S. in innovating Internet applications is the cost-effectiveness of deployment. Spectrum abundance is a basis for innovation and an important part of ensuring limitless communication at affordable prices.
A spectrum pipeline provides investment certainty for the industry. Without the pipeline, stakeholders in the ecosystem do not know which bands may be suitable for study and development. Lack of a published pipeline and timelines will hamper readiness for 6G and hamper progress on component technologies such as basic semiconductor, antenna or battery technologies or the development of sensor electronics and display components that rely on the availability of wireless networks. The influence of wireless technologies on societal outcomes is huge: AI, XR, digital twins, smart cities and other developments are dependent on the inexorable expansion of mobile communication services. Innovation of supplemental technologies depends on wireless networks that can facilitate their growth.
Spectrum licensing framework matters
Not all spectrum licensing frameworks are effective. Exclusive licensed spectrum has been the primary spur for investment and innovation in commercial mobile networks. Without a reliable right to use and the protection granted from interference, investment suffers. Since 2018 when 5G was introduced, service providers have invested $121 billion into their networks. This has allowed 5G to be rolled out more quickly than prior generations—5G now covers 315 million Americans and demand for 5G connected devices grew 513 percent in 2022. This rollout and development is expected to contribute $400 to $500 billion to the U.S. economy and create up to a million new jobs by 20303.
At the same time, the needs of other services cannot be dismissed. Sharing with federal incumbents may admittedly be necessary in some cases. If so, simple pre-defined solutions like geographic coordination zones that guarantee full power, assured access, wide channelization and interference protection necessary for the introduction of successful commercial licensed, wide-area deployments is recommended. Solutions should seek to accommodate incumbent uses of the band through the least restrictive means on the new services in the band, including relocation or repacking of incumbents. By offering full power, wide channels and wide area licensed spectrum access, a framework can be established that incentivizes significant investments in next-generation commercial technologies.
Sharing with incumbents will reduce economies within the commercial ecosystem. The global nature of the wireless industry can serve specific national market needs only if the sharing criteria does not cause significant alteration of standardized mainstream solutions in other markets. Every departure from market expectations will lower the value of spectrum to service providers and network operators. Examples include:
- incompatibility with harmonized bands
- strict filtering requirements
- inability to ensure good selectivity characteristics of legacy incumbent technologies
- reduced power that forces the market to small cell deployments
- dynamic sharing requirements that may cause interdiction of rights
- interference risk due to licensing by rule underlayment
Every point of presence in a mobile network is meant to carry traffic and should not suffer uncertainty in coverage, bandwidth, provisioning or interruptions of ongoing subscriber links. Every constraint that is placed on a radio that increases complexity without providing tangible value to the primary objective of the operator will increase costs for the user.
No spectrum equals no 6G
Spectrum targeting 6G use cases should be made available at the same pace as technology evolves. Technical standardization work for 6G will begin by 2026 in 3GPP. Ericsson expects that the first implementations of 3GPP-compliant 6G system specification will be available around 2028. A critical component for the success of 6G is the availability of sufficient greenfield spectrum in a timely manner. With the first commercial deployments expected in 2030 and the time-consuming process for licensing spectrum, activities toward ensuring spectrum availability for 6G need to be initiated as soon as possible.
Ericsson recommends that 1.5–2.2 gigahertz of additional wideband spectrum is needed in suitable mid-band frequencies that can be repurposed for commercial networks. While the priority spectrum is midband, the 7–15 GHz range offers a balance of wide-channel bandwidths and reasonable outdoor propagation as we move toward 6G applications. While the propagation environment in the 7–15 GHz range is challenging, the industry is working on several solutions such as larger antenna arrays, increased radiated power and uplink enhancements to make spectrum in this range an integral part of the site grid that already exists for 5G systems. It should however be clear that technological limitations cannot be the reason to increase site density; only increases in traffic and revenue potential can warrant increased site densities4.
To support the 5G networks of today, and eventually 6G, the U.S. wireless industry will need access to additional mid-band spectrum. As a result, near-term action is needed to establish a spectrum pipeline with a focus on spectrum bands within the 3–8 GHz frequency, specifically the lower 3 GHz, 4.4–4.94 GHz and 7.125–8.5 GHz bands. In addition, spectrum in the 7–15 GHz range is needed, with a focus on lower spectrum bands in this range that offers a balance of wide-channel bandwidths and reasonable outdoor propagation as we move toward 6G applications.
Establishing a spectrum pipeline as part of the National Spectrum Strategy entails more than releasing spectrum for commerce, it secures global U.S leadership in standards and emerging technologies. Harmonizing worldwide spectrum usage safeguards U.S. standard dominance and supply chain control.
Read Part 2 of this blog for Ericsson’s further recommendations.
2 See Spectrum Allocation in the United States (2022). Accenture
4 See Ericsson white paper 6G Spectrum - Enabling the Future Mobile Life Beyond 2030 which examines 6G use cases such as holographic communication, the internet of senses, massive digital twins and the exponential increase in mobile broadband communication.
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