Mobile broadband is the cornerstone of connectivity for citizens and businesses worldwide and spectrum is a fundamental enabler of the mobile wireless communications. It is also a scarce resource that is shared among different industries, technologies and users and its planning requires significant international coordination and cooperation. Nokia is engaged with regulators, policy makers, business and industry partners to make harmonized spectrum available for cost-effective mobile network deployments (4G, 5G and future 6G) while protecting other services.
Every new generation of mobile broadband technology benefits from accessing spectrum in different frequency ranges, each with specific characteristics. Low, mid, and high band spectrum is needed to meet the growing data traffic carried by the mobile networks and satisfy different use cases. Low sub-GHz bands such as 600 MHz and 700 MHz provide wide-area coverage and deep indoor penetration for wireless services. Mid bands such as 2.3 GHz, 2.6 GHz, 3.3-4.2 GHz, and 6 GHz, provide both coverage and enhanced capacity, while the high frequency bands such as 26 GHz, 28 GHz, 40 GHz, 60 GHz offer extreme capacity at specific hot spot locations. The combined use of low, mid, and high bands assures the necessary network capacity for the different types of environments - urban and rural, highly or sparsely populated.
Equally, the evolution of technological advancements allows mobile networks to utilise a wider range of frequencies, complementing licensed with shared, and unlicensed spectrum to satisfy the growing data demands. While access to individually licensed spectrum is essential to assure investments and roll out of mobile networks as well as to provide guaranteed QoS, shared and unlicensed spectrum can play a complementary role leveraging mobile services globally for the benefit of billions. However, managed shared and unlicensed options are least preferred alternatives for accessing spectrum as conditions are more restrictive, leading to best-effort type of quality of service and user experience.
The key pillars of Nokia's spectrum policy work
Availability of widely harmonized radio frequency bands in a timely manner is a prerequisite for ecosystem development and mass deployment for each generation of wireless technologies. However, ensuring the availability of sufficient amounts of spectrum through effective spectrum licensing policies requires a long-term planning process. National broadband plans that include spectrum strategies supporting mobile communications, create regulatory certainty which allows the industry to invest, innovate and thrive for the benefit of society, citizen, and businesses.
At Nokia, we put a great emphasis on the need for spectrum harmonisation for mobile broadband communications so that the valuable spectrum resources are available on a timely manner, allowing the new generations of mobile networks to flourish for the benefit of people and industries that rely on them on daily basis.
Harmonization of spectrum
Harmonization of spectrum on a global or at least regional level is essential for the mobile industry: large scale availability of new radio frequencies with clear release timelines creates certainty for the development of mobile technologies, for the capabilities of user equipment, and for network planning. Harmonized spectrum enables ecosystem growth allowing for economies of scale providing for affordable cost of user equipment and services.
At country level, access to spectrum in low, mid, and high frequency bands enables efficient rollout of mobile networks and prevents the creation of digital divide between the urban and rural areas. In addition to harmonized spectrum bands, regional time alignment in releasing spectrum is important to create ecosystem momentum and facilitate cross-border co-existence. Deferred access to spectrum can increase the digital divide between countries, deepen fragmentation, and generate cross-border interference issues and to the detriment of individuals and businesses, thus negatively impacting the overall economy.
International treaties governing spectrum use are reviewed every three to four years at World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRCs). WRCs core mission is to ensure equitable, efficient, and economical use of the spectrum by all radiocommunication services, and to carry out studies and adopt recommendations on radiocommunication matters. Between the 20th of November and the 15th of December 2023, the next conference, WRC-23, will play a significant role for the mobile industry by identifying spectrum in mid and low bands that will help expand the availability of affordable 5G services and ensure future growth and innovation. The WRC-23 is therefore an opportunity to build a spectrum roadmap for the 2025-2030 period, reducing the digital divide and ensuring inclusive 5G globally. It is also the conference where discussions on what spectrum to be considered for 6G in the following study cycle will emerge.
Subjects relevant to mobile under discussion during the 2020-2023 WRC-23 cycle include:
- Study of several mid bands in the 3-11 GHz range for formal identification for mobile use: one topic concerns the further harmonization of the 5G core band 3.5 GHz across the different regions of the world; another one is the upper 6 GHz band (6425-7125 MHz), which can become an essential band for advancements of 5G to expand and improve coverage and capacity, as well as to enable further use cases in the upcoming period.
- Review of the UHF band (470-960 MHz), which can lead to additional spectrum for 5G in the sub-GHz range for affordable wide-area connectivity and for improved performance of the 5G services in both urban and rural areas.
Read more about WRC-23 and the topics relevant to the mobile industry here:
Sessions at Mobile World Congress Barcelona 2023: https://5gconnectivityforeveryone.com/
Spectrum is a scarce and valuable national resource that should be optimally used for the benefit of the society. Licensed spectrum provides exclusive rights of use without harmful interference, certainty for investments, and should continue to be the priority for regulators to ensure that networks provide guaranteed quality of service (QoS).
- Exclusively licensed spectrum over wide geographic areas allows operators to provide extended coverage of their networks.
- Allocation of large contiguous blocks of spectrum per mobile network should be favored to support efficient mobile broadband deployments.
- Timely release of spectrum under the right conditions (e.g., service and technology neutrality) enable early deployments and accessibility to services.
- The duration of spectrum licenses should be long enough (e.g., 15 years or more) to give the wireless industry the necessary timeframe to continuously invest in the latest and most spectrum-efficient infrastructure. Longer license durations and technology neutrality offer investors more certainty for continuously investing in state-of-the-art technology.
- Transparent renewal conditions such as early notice on timing and conditions of renewal are essential to allow operators continuous investment in their networks.
- Balanced spectrum pricing policies for operators directly translate to better services at affordable prices for end-users, as they permit operators to invest more and faster in networks and services.
Locally licensed spectrum is assigned on an exclusive basis in defined geographical areas to interested parties, traditional operators and/or industries.
- Local licensing is a means to optimize usage of spectrum resources when national availability is not possible due to existing incumbent services that can coexist under specific conditions with mobile networks. Such coexistence is possible through defining a suitable coordination framework to avoid interference.
Local licensing should be authorized under similar regulatory principles as the national licenses.
- Aligned regulations should aim at enabling sufficiently long license duration to incentivize local deployments, protection from interference and coordination of licensees if necessary.
- The regulatory framework should also consider reasonable pricing, incremental size of the geographical area licensed, and the length and complexity of the administrative processes.
Availability of additional mid band spectrum for 5G and its evolution
5G deployments are on a steady path, expected to cover one third of the world by 2025. Mobile broadband networks will need to continuously adapt and evolve to accommodate the growing demand for mobile data connectivity globally. To release the full potential of 5G and provide the expected user experience, mobile networks will require access to additional spectrum in all spectrum bands - low, mid, and high. While low bands play a vital role in providing the blanket coverage for 5G, and high bands, in the mmWave range, deliver hotspot type connectivity in very high traffic areas, the mid bands between 2 and 6 GHz provide the right tradeoff between coverage and capacity, making them the sweet spot of the 5G deployments. Several studies indicate that on average, at national level, a total of 2 GHz of harmonized mid band spectrum should be made available between 2025 and 2030 to support 5G and its evolution. This includes the initial 80-100 MHz of contiguous mid band spectrum per network in the C-band and the reuse of spectrum employed for previous generations of mobile technology. Lack of additional mid band spectrum cannot be compensated purely through extreme densification of networks because doing so is neither economically viable nor desirable from an environmental preservation and energy consumption perspective. It will further increase the cost of acquisition of new location assets as well as the cost of the overall network energy consumption, costs that will eventually need to be passed to the end-user. Therefore, existing mid band spectrum should be complemented by additional harmonized spectrum in the 3.3-4.2 GHz, 4.4-5 GHz, and 6.425-7.125 GHz ranges. The WRC-23 is a crucial opportunity for harmonization of additional spectrum for IMT/mobile for the expansion of the capacity of 5G and 5G Advanced networks.
Read our blog to find out more on the need for additional mid band spectrum for 5G:
Studies addressing the economics and ecologic impact of mobile network:
NGNM: 6G white Paper
Additional reports and information: https://6ghzopportunity.com/
Future spectrum for 6G
Each new generation of mobile technology benefits from having new pioneer spectrum to help exploit its benefits, and 6G is no exception.
The successful take up of 6G will vastly depend on one essential component: contiguous connectivity on-the-move. Access to suitable spectrum - sufficient and adequate - is therefore essential and its planning is done well in advance.
- The switch-off of legacy technologies will allow freeing up and reusing existing mobile spectrum, but this alone will not be sufficient to respond to the needs of 6G.
- New spectrum from all ranges: low, medium, and high bands need to be identified.
- Also, the long-term research includes technologies that will use sub-THz spectrum for sensing and future capacity demand of locally very confined applications.
Mid-band spectrum from within the 7-15 GHz range is essential for providing the required coverage and enhanced capacity in a cost effective and sustainable way to make 6G a reality. Advancements in the antenna technologies will allow the use of these bands to deliver higher capacity for urban outdoor deployments from existing sites to meet the expected user experience.
New low frequencies from the 460-694 MHz range together with refarming of existing spectrum will provide the basic 6G coverage layers, while the available mmWave bandwidths in the 26/28 GHz and 40 GHz will deliver localized extreme capacity and Gigabit per second speeds in dense traffic areas. The frequencies in the sub-THz domain could later play a complementary role in hot spots for peak data rates exceeding 100 Gbps.
While 5G-Advanced will expand 5G beyond just data communication and will substantially improve positioning accuracy to centimeter-level, especially at indoor and underground facilities where satellite signals are unavailable, 6G will take localization to a next level by taking advantage of wide spectrum and new spectral ranges all the way up to sub-THz.
Spectrum for wireless backhaul
Besides fiber, microwave links provide much needed solutions to connect base station sites to the core networks. Microwave links present several advantages such as fast installation and recovery, low latency, and easy access to difficult-to-reach locations. Recent technology improvements have considerably increased microwave link capacity and range, so that their use is not just limited to places where fiber optic links are not available. Microwave solutions cover all use cases ranging from short-haul to long-haul and from dense-urban high-performance networks to rural long reach performing services.
Traditionally, microwave links typically used frequencies in the 6-42 GHz range. At the time of 5G introduction, the E-band (71-76 GHz / 81-86 GHz) became an essential band of global alignment for backhauling mobile networks. 5G will remain the main driver for microwave links in the upcoming years, needing an extensive use of broadband channels in millimetric bands to provide multi-Gbit/s solutions for backhauling. With the projected traffic growth likely resulting in further site densification, the demand for microwave backhaul is expected to continue to grow in the foreseeable future.
Continuous innovation in the wireless backhaul domain makes microwave transmission an effective 5G critical transport means in both urban and rural environments, or as an alternative in places where fiber connectivity is not feasible or too expensive. Further developments consider the use of frequencies up to around 100 GHz and above.
Proper regulations and licensing of the spectrum for wireless backhaul are essential for a fast time-to-market of microwave backhaul and the deployment of high throughput mobile services.
The mmWave frequencies used for mobile access are also being considered for wireless backhaul using the Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB) technology. IAB shares the same mmWave spectrum the mobile devices use at a cell site to also deliver backhaul connectivity from one cell site to another. By using IAB, operators can provide a faster and cost-efficient method for deploying 5G sites without the need to densifying the fiber transport network to support it. It can also be used to mitigate isolated coverage gaps, to enhance capacity, to bridge coverage from outdoor to indoor or to enable group mobility.