5G spectrum bands explained
— low, mid and high band
Everything you need to know about 5G spectrum, millimeter-wave tech, auctions, and what the right spectrum means to you.
With connectivity shaping the future of our world, communication service providers (CSPs) must use a combination of different spectrum bands to deliver 5G services.
5G presents some new challenges for CSPs. On the one hand, 5G networks support faster mobile broadband speeds and lower latencies making new applications possible, such as artificial intelligence (AI), the metaverse, and the Internet of Things (IoT). On the other hand, 5G will require CSPs to have access to substantial amounts of spectrum to make these new services a reality.
According to the GSMA (Global System for Mobile communications Association), a global trade organization representing the worldwide mobile communications industry, 515 operators were investing in 5G worldwide at the beginning of 2023, with 243 commercial 5G launches.
GSMA recommends that regulators and government agencies that control 5G spectrum allocation make 80-100 MHz of contiguous spectrum available per operator in prime 5G bands and about 1 GHz per operator available in millimeter wave bands.
Low-band spectrum offers blanket coverage
Low-band spectrum is any spectrum lower than 1 GHz on the spectrum chart. Early wireless networks, often called analog cellular, were deployed in low-band 800 MHz spectrum.
At the time, CSPs often referred to low-band spectrum as "beachfront property" because it was desirable. Wireless carriers could serve thousands of customers within hundreds of square miles with just one tower.
A low-band spectrum in a 5G world will allow CSPs to provide comprehensive coverage. Still, the speed and latency of the 5G network will only be incrementally better than what is delivered with 4G networks due to smaller bandwidths.
The 5G network's performance will depend on your cell site’s proximity. However, low-band spectrum does make it easier for the wireless signal to penetrate windows and walls.
India's largest spectrum auction reached bids totaling more than $19 billion (Rs 1.5 lakh crore) in over seven days and 40 rounds. Reliance Jio made the most significant acquisition. It had more than 50 percent of the shares of the whole auction and 5G spectrum bands in India.
For a total of $11 billion (Rs 88,078 crore), Reliance Jio purchased spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 1800MHz, and 3300MHz bands. Bharti Airtel spent $5.4 billion (Rs 43,084 crore) to purchase spectrum over the 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz, and 3300 MHz bands.
AT&T has deployed 5G in around 100 US cities, while 5G Plus – deployed in the company’s 36 GHz band millimeter wave spectrum – is live in parts of more than 50 cities. 5G Plus offers extra speed and capacity and is intended for high-traffic areas like campuses and arenas.
Elsewhere, Markus Haas, CEO of Telefónica Deutschland (O2), reiterated his call for more spectrum, such as 600MHz, to support 5G deployment in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
5G mid-band spectrum provides coverage and capacity
Recently, mid-band spectrum accounted for over 60% of the total frequencies assigned. This trend will continue. Pressure on mid-band spectrum is increasing, and governments are looking for answers to satisfy the demand for 5G and 5G-Advanced.
Mid-band spectrum (1 GHz - 6 GHz) is considered perfect for 5G because it can carry plenty of data while traveling significant distances. The GSMA describes spectrum in the 3.3 GHz to 3.8 GHz range as ideal because many countries worldwide have already designated it for 5G.
However, other mid-band spectrum is also being used. China has become the most prominent 5G market globally in the scale of deployments and consumer take-up.
Its award of mid-band frequencies across the 2.6 GHz and 3.5 GHz bands for 5G have been essential in tackling coverage and capacity challenges. Looking at the next stage of 5G expansion, China has focused on the 6 GHz band and expressed strong interest in utilizing 6 GHz to satisfy the fast-rising demands for 5G.
Network-monitoring companies like Ookla have shown dramatic rises in mobile network speeds thanks to implementing 5G over mid-band spectrum.
Operators such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon spent the last couple of years installing mid-band radios to the cell towers they lease. T-Mobile covers around 260 million people in the US with its mid-band 5G network and expects to increase to 300 million. Meanwhile, Verizon covers 200 million and expects to reach 250 million by the end of 2024.
Some US operators are also planning to refarm (or re-use) some mid-band spectrum (such as the 1800 MHz) currently used for 3G services and use it for 5G.
AT&T turned off 3G in February 2022, while T-Mobile shut down Sprint's 3G network a month later, and the sun finally set on T-Mobile's 3G network in the summer of 2022. Verizon pushed back its 3G shutdown to the end of the year, using that freed-up 3G spectrum to improve the reach of their growing 5G networks.
5G high-band spectrum delivers super-fast speeds over short distances
The third spectrum bucket where CSPs deploy 5G is in the millimeter wave spectrum – 24 GHz band and higher on the spectrum chart.
The GSMA recommends that CSPs support millimeter wave spectrum in the 26 GHz, 40 GHz, 50 GHz, and 66 GHz bands for mobile services. However, the association notes that spectrum in the 26 GHz and 28 GHz have strong momentum from CSPs. They added that these bands are adjacent, making it easier for handsets to support them.
Millimeter wave (high-band) spectrum is limited because signals cannot travel as far as mid and low-band signals. Sometimes, the signal will travel less than a mile and is more susceptible to interference from things such as trees, buildings, and even glass. But the benefit of millimeter wave spectrum is that if the signal is unencumbered, users can get connection speeds between 1 Gbps to 3 Gbps or even higher.
Besides its low-band 5G offering, AT&T has a high-band 5G deployed in its 36 GHz band millimeter wave spectrum. It offers extra speed and capacity for high-traffic areas, such as transportation hubs, campuses and arenas.
Verizon has a substantial spectrum portfolio across low, mid, and high bands, holding 1,741 MHz of millimeter wave spectrum (high band). Continuing to expand its mmWave footprint, Verizon hopes to deliver game-changing experiences for the most utilized parts of the network.
In earnings calls with investors, Verizon executives have said that millimeter wave spectrum works better than many experts thought. The company uses beam-forming technology coupled with 5G small cells to get more coverage.
The Korean government is giving a new operator exclusive rights to an additional 5G network frequency band for three years to help local businesses enter the new high-speed network service sector.
The new operator will have priority to use one of the two frequency bands in the 28 GHz wavelength. In contrast, according to the Ministry of Science and ICT, the other band will be allocated three years after the first operator starts the service.
The operator will be the only service provider in the 28 GHz spectrum for the first three years and will be given the time to secure the market. Financial benefits will also be provided, including tax cuts and new loans.
More spectrum auctions coming soon
The Indian government will conduct another spectrum auction for 5G airwaves. The first 5G spectrum auctions concluded in late 2022, with four companies bidding for the airwaves - Adani Data Networks, Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, and Vodafone Idea (Vi). Two telecom operators have already started rolling out 5G commercially for consumers.
The Nigerian Communications Commission is offering the remaining 2 x 100MHz in the 3.5GHz spectrum band to support 5G deployment in Nigeria – ensuring reliable communications services and innovative digital technologies. Other countries are also planning to conduct 5G spectrum auctions.
Spectrum determines 5G speed and coverage
With the right spectrum, the 5G rollout can continue flourishing, and all parts of the world can access 5G technologies. Expanding access to mobile spectrum can deliver scale while decreasing network density - placing affordable, next-generation mobile services into the hands of the entire world.
Spectrum will play a vital role in the 5G service operators can provide their customers. High-band spectrum may give you fast speeds and lots of capacity, but only with a smaller coverage area. Low-band may provide excellent coverage, but the network performance may only be a small step up from 4G, as spectrum bandwidths are smaller.
One thing you can count on in the coming years is that CSPs will continue to fine-tune their 5G networks by expanding existing coverage, making additional spectrum purchases, and taking advantage of new technologies. Spectrum may be a finite resource, but innovation is not.