Maintaining US Leadership in 5G with Smart Spectrum Policy

Neville Ray
Chief Technology Officer
Last week was “Tech Week” at the White House, and Mike Sievert and I were pleased to represent T-Mobile as the Administration gathered company leaders to consider how the US can remain a technology leader. The focus was on fifth generation (“5G”) technology and paving the way for the rapid deployment of 5G wireless networks. As I’ve written before, 5G will completely transform the mobile Internet and deliver amazing breakthroughs by providing incredibly low latency, high bandwidth and sensors capable of decades-long battery life.

More Spectrum for 5G. The White House gathering could not have been more timely. In addition to addressing wireless infrastructure concerns, we also have to focus on the spectrum pipeline for 5G and ensure we have enough bandwidth to meet our exploding connectivity needs. 5G will rely on more spectrum than we have available today.

So far, the FCC has largely equated 5G with high-band, or millimeter wave, spectrum. But that spectrum will only be a part of the 5G picture. Throughout the history of wireless, no single spectrum band has defined subsequent generations of services (2G, 3G, 4G and the steps in between) – and it won’t with 5G either.  But, to fulfill the promise of 5G, we need spectrum in various bands – unlike with previous generations where the change in scope was more incremental.

Millimeter wave spectrum has the promise of massive capacity but only limited range. So, while it will be very useful for meeting traffic requirements in areas with the highest demand and filling in coverage and capacity gaps, it won’t do much to bring 5G to rural America. But 5G is so much more than millimeter wave, and that’s why we’ve announced that T-Mobile will roll out 5G in lower band – 600 MHz – spectrum. It will allow us to provide better 5G coverage inside buildings and, because 600 MHz spectrum travels so well, in rural America, which desperately needs more and higher quality wireless competition.

Deploying 5G in low-band spectrum will allow rural America to benefit from the latest technology just like urban and suburban areas, but, like millimeter wave, it also isn’t the full solution. We also need additional mid-band spectrum, which provides a balance of coverage and capacity, and high-band spectrum, which turbo-charges that capacity with greater improvements in latency.

3.5 GHz Is Great Mid-Band Spectrum for 5G. As the current FCC has recognized, a balanced spectrum portfolio, including mid-band spectrum – between 1 GHz and 6 GHz – is essential to ensure the US has complete 5G networks. That’s why T-Mobile has asked the FCC to re-examine its rules for the 3.5 GHz band. The 3550-3700 MHz spectrum is ideal to meet the mid-band needs for 5G networks. It has better coverage characteristics than high-band spectrum, meaning that it can help deliver the promise of 5G to rural areas, and there is potentially more of it than there is low-band spectrum.

In addition, the 3.5 GHz band spectrum is next-door to other mid-band spectrum that may become available for wireless carriers. Just last week, Senator Thune, head of the Senate committee that oversees the FCC, wrote to FCC Chairman Pai to explore use of the 3.7 GHz band (3700-4200 MHz) for wireless networks (also included in his MOBILE NOW legislation). 



If the 3.7 GHz band, together with the other 3 GHz band spectrum identified in the MOBILE NOW legislation (3.1- 3.5 GHz) and the 3.5 GHz band were all designated for licensed use, that would make 1100 megahertz of mid-band spectrum available for 5G networks – a great start!   On the other hand, if the 3.5 GHz band stays the way it is, it will simply become orphaned – stuck in the middle of the broader band targeted to support 5G.

The Current 3.5 GHz Band Rules Require Overhauling. The FCC’s rules for the 3.5 GHz band today are overly complex and provide extremely limited opportunity for wireless carriers to take advantage of the spectrum. Modifying the band to be more in line with global 5G interests makes a ton of sense. Both consumers and businesses will benefit from a more robust 5G spectrum architecture and radio/device ecosystem, boosting the economy as those networks are built and used.

Auctioning the 3.5 GHz Band, With Other 3 GHz Spectrum, Will be Great for Taxpayers.  And, if more of the 3.5 GHz spectrum is auctioned as T-Mobile suggests, taxpayers will benefit because the auction proceeds will be deposited in the US Treasury. As things stand today, the 3.5 GHz band won’t generate much auction revenue on its own.  Worse, over time, we would be passing up the opportunity to auction potentially 1100 megahertz of mid-band spectrum, which will certainly generate tens of billions of dollars in auction proceeds.

The Time to Act is Now. Other regions and countries, such as the EU, Asia and the UK, have already started the process of making spectrum in the 3 GHz band available for 5G operations, creating a major global spectrum harmonization opportunity. Opening up this band for 5G wireless networks in the US should be a primary goal for this Administration’s telecom policy. Even if the FCC gets the ball rolling today to make the 3.5 GHz rules more favorable for deploying 5G services, it may be years before the Commission can auction the spectrum and place it in the hands of carriers that can put it to best use. We have no time to waste.

The FCC issued a Public Notice seeking comment on our request – and a similar request by CTIA. The deadline for responding to the Public Notice is July 24. Wireless carriers and consumers should rally around T-Mobile’s proposal and tell the FCC that mid-band spectrum is critical for US 5G leadership – and the 3.5 GHz band is the way to make that happen!
 
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