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Spectrum and its role for 5G in the US

Spectrum and its role for 5G in the US

Mobile communications technologies are powering the U.S. economy and Nokia is innovating to meet the ever-growing demands of consumers and industry. The advancement in wireless networks over the last decade, spanning transitions from 3G to 4G to 5G, has been a triumph. Long gone are the days when people relied on their mobile phones primarily for voice calls. Today, wireless technologies power a new paradigm of virtual connections, changing how we work, learn, seek healthcare, and accomplish innumerable tasks as part of daily life.

All of this is made possible by using an invisible, finite resource called “radio spectrum.” Spectrum is made up of radio waves, which move through the air like waves on the water, with peaks and valleys. Spectrum is divided into “frequencies,” which refers to how close together the peaks and valleys are. Lower frequency spectrum bands are more like gentle swells in the middle of the ocean where the peaks and valleys are spread far apart. Higher frequency bands are like waves in high tide near the beaches where these peaks and valleys get closer and closer.

Spectrum is shared among many services, including radio, television, cell phones, radars, garage door openers, baby monitors, microwave ovens and Wi-Fi hotspots among others. Ideally, a particular frequency range in a geography will carry a single type of service. The provider of the service may use techniques, called multiplexing, to enable multiple users use the same spectrum. As an example, there could be thousands of users sharing the spectrum available at a cell phone tower site. Even with these techniques, however, there are limits to how many users can be accommodated in a given amount of spectrum. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates spectrum in the United States and allocates different frequency bands for different services and platforms, for example, commercial mobile, Wi-Fi, satellite, broadcast and public safety. The FCC also ensures that one particular service does not cause degradation of any other service.

Each generation of wireless technology enables newer and richer applications that bring greater benefits to the users and the broader society. However, these newer applications, including an array of mission critical applications, are also more resource hungry and thus require more spectrum. As such, Nokia is innovating both to use scarce spectrum resources more efficiently and to use increasingly wide swaths of spectrum over a more diverse range of spectrum bands to keep pace with demand. Earlier generations of mobile technologies focused on lower spectrum bands, divided into small bandwidths suitable for what was needed at the time – voice calls and text.

 These low bandwidths – described above as gentle swells in the ocean – have ideal “propagation characteristics” that travel far and more easily penetrate through walls and foliage. Those lowest spectrum bands, however, are already allocated and not sufficient to support the broadband communications we rely on today. As we go to higher spectrum bands, there is more bandwidth allowing for higher speeds and greater throughput, but the signal does not travel as well. This is why 5G requires more infrastructure, closer to the user, to achieve full performance.  

Another consideration is “licensed” versus “unlicensed” spectrum. When it comes to mobile broadband use cases, licensed spectrum is typically acquired at very high cost in spectrum auctions. Carriers are willing to pay for this spectrum because it ensures them exclusive use of these licensed frequencies and offers greater certainty with respect to quality of service. Unlicensed spectrum is also important, and can be used free of charge. There are fewer interference protections because anyone can use unlicensed spectrum. However, it is still extremely effective, for example, for in-home uses where unlicensed Wi-Fi powers most of our wireless devices. More recently, there has been the advent of managed shared spectrum, which straddles the boundaries of licensed and unlicensed spectrum. In this case, a central management system allows different services to share a given spectrum band; the users do not have exclusive usage rights but they also pay a significantly lower price.

Nokia’s public policy efforts focus on achieving a balance of low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum, as well as licensed, unlicensed, and managed shared spectrum, to achieve the coverage and performance needs consumers and industry demand. In addition to advocating for more spectrum, Nokia also promotes creative solutions to more efficient use of spectrum resources to support multiple users and use cases in North America that have allowed coexistence of terrestrial and satellite uses, fixed and mobile, and Federal and commercial. The Nokia government relations team is a leading voice in advocating for policies that will fuel our connected future.

To learn more about Nokia and Spectrum in North America visit:

To see more Nokia blog content on Spectrum

To learn more about CBRS and MulteFire

Learn more about Spectrum in our Nokia Today Podcast

Jeffrey  Marks

About Jeffrey Marks

Jeffrey Marks is Vice President, Regulatory Affairs for Nokia. In that role, Jeff develops and presents Nokia’s legal and policy positions to officials at all levels of government. Jeff advocates on a wide range of issues, including spectrum policy, broadband deployment, net neutrality/net governance, “smart” infrastructure, and network security.

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