Society cannot cope with the growing demands on 5G without 6GHz
Everyday use of mobile technologies is constantly growing. Devices get more powerful, video more prevalent, and services more diverse for both consumers and enterprise. At the same time, governments and business are realizing the role digitalization plays in the future development of society and the importance of high-capacity, ubiquitous connectivity.
The ITU-R report for IMT-2020 (5G) sets out requirements to respond to such challenges. These requirements are expected to provide a user experience matching, as closely as possible, that of fixed networks, defined as 100 Mbps in the downlink and 50 Mbps in the uplink. This high traffic capacity presents a challenge, especially in cities with a high population density.
The quest for new spectrum
There are limited options when it comes to new spetrum availability these days, as most of the spectrum bands are already intensively used by various services and users. However, in the mid-band spectrum range, there is an opportunity to use additional spectrum in the 6GHz range that is under-utilized at present by the existing services. Moreover, its usage seems to be diminishing as the incumbent services focus on other frequency ranges.
The incumbent users in the 6GHz range are satellite uplink services, microwave fixed links and radio astronomy. 70% of the satellite uplink spectrum is not being used at present, and the demand for such capacity in this frequency is on the wane. 35 of the 54 satellites using the 6GHz spectrum in Region 1 (Europe, Middle East and Africa) do not intend to be using the band by 2030. Some usage will need to be protected in a few sites, but indications are that the use of this spectrum is declining.
The other incumbent use – fixed-link microwave service – is mostly deployed for backhaul by mobile network operators (MNOs), mainly for long distance transmission outside cities. 90% of MNOs are willing to reuse this spectrum more efficiently for mobile access and relocate their backhaul links to other frequencies. The radio astronomy service also uses this spectrum, but in remote areas and is not in competition with the urban use of the 6GHz spectrum.
No need for new site acquisition
One of the many aspects of 6GHz that make it ideal for 5G and its evolution is that thanks to advancements in antenna technology, the performance of 6GHz is similar to 3.7GHz. Simulations carried out by Nokia suggest that operators should be able to reuse their macro grids with 6GHz.
This implies that operators will be able, by using 6GHz spectrum, to provide sufficient capacity ‘on the move’ in urban environments. For most mobile consumer applications, the mid-band spectrum fits better with the everyday needs of the users who need capacity and coverage while also being highly mobile. While mmWave provides extreme capacity, its propagation limitations – in distance and in-building penetration – make it suitable for specific use cases and mobile applications in hotspot-type deployments. mmWave can provide extreme bandwidth over short distances, in conjunction with high-order antenna arrays for example, to concert goers in a stadium, but has limited ability to penetrate buildings or cover macro-cell areas. As such, the 6GHz spectrum plays its uncontestable role in providing additional capacity in urban and suburban areas.
The knock-on social and economic impacts of making this 5G spectrum available are, of course, significant. A GSMA Intelligence study concludes that 5G is expected to generate $960 billion in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2030 on a global basis and that 5G mid-band spectrum will drive an increase of more than $610 billion of that total, producing almost 65% of the overall socio-economic value generated by 5G. According to the analysis, up to 40% of the expected benefits of mid-band 5G could be lost if no additional mid-band spectrum is assigned to mobile services.
What about Wi-Fi?
As the 6GHz spectrum provides excellent propagation conditions for wireless connectivity, radio local access network (RLAN) technologies like WiFi also see the benefits of using it, specifically Wi-Fi 6E and its successor, Wi-Fi 7. RLAN has always complemented mobile access, and this is expected to continue. Mid-and high-band spectrum are key for 5G NR and RLAN/Wi-Fi. Both technologies need to use the spectrum appropriately. While the mid-bands address wide-area use cases and deep coverage, the high bands such as 60GHz can be deployed when extreme capacity is required within a limited area such as a room.
Considering the growing spectrum scarcity, it is worth noting that licensed 5G uses the spectrum three times more efficiently than unlicensed Wi-Fi 6E due to technical features and the inherent design of 5G.
Governments and industry need to work together to address mid-band spectrum allocation equitably and with a careful and considered view of our future needs. The 6GHz band can play an essential role in addressing the growing needs of consumer and industries through a balanced approach between licensed and unlicensed use.
The lower part of the 6GHz band (5925-6425MHz) has already been allocated or is being considered for unlicensed use in some parts Europe, Middle East and Africa, but we recommend designating the upper 6GHz band (6425-7125MHz) for licensed use. This would provide an equitable, sustainable and inclusive basis for both technology families, and provision necessary spectrum required for the evolution of future communication networks from 5G to 5G-Advanced to 6G. With the upper 6GHz band at its disposal, 5G will be able to meet the growing demand for capacity in cities while providing all the advantages of true mobility.