Some of America’s most productive farming starts in Washington, D.C.
The Federal Communications Commission’s offices in the District don’t feature arable land, but they are where government regulators cultivate swaths of spectrum for use by wireless carriers.
It’s not a fast process, but it’s essential to keep our bits flowing as smartphone use escalates while 5G wireless begins to connect many more devices beyond phones. And a round of upcoming auctions promises to fill the missing middle of that next-generation standard, making its faster speeds far more available—without requiring today’s smartphone shoppers to replace their newest purchases.
What makes evolution in wireless possible is this opening up of greenfield spectrum,” says Harold Feld, senior vice president at the D.C.-based nonprofit policy group Public Knowledge. “Every time we’ve moved forward, we’ve had a bunch of auctions to create the new spectrum that we’re gonna need.”
Unlike the first 5G bands allocated under the Obama administration—millimeter-wave frequencies that offer speeds as fast as wired fiber-optic broadband but only over a thousand feet or so—the bands spotlighted in the FCC’s 5G Fast plan occupy promising midband frequencies above today’s 4G frequencies that are also now starting to host slightly faster 5G service.
The biggest impact for your average consumer is midband,” says Avi Greengart, founder and lead analyst at Techsponential. “That’s where you still get some coverage indoors, and you get significantly faster than 4G speeds.” Public Knowledge’s Feld adds: “One of the peculiarities of how 5G works is that it actually works best with midband.”
Avi Greengart, Techsponential
It’ll take somewhere between six to 18 months before you have a serious footprint.”
Today, only T-Mobile offers midband 5G, thanks to it buying Sprint and its 2.5 GHz 5G service. That merger has given T-Mobile, which also plans to deliver home broadband via 5G, a commanding lead in availability over Verizon’s faster but scarcer “mm-wave” 5G. The network-analysis firm Opensignal reported in June that T-Mobile users connected to its 5G 22.5% of the time, while Verizon’s customers had 5G service .4% of the time.
In addition, AT&T and T-Mobile offer 5G on low-band frequencies that allow them to tout coast-to-coast coverage; Verizon plans to activate low-band 5G later this year.
But where millimeter-wave spectrum was vacant—”the low-hanging fruit that they could just give away,” said Roger Entner, founder and lead analyst at Recon Analytics—the upcoming midband 5G sets have current occupants.
A set of 2.5 GHz frequencies, announced in May of 2018, is currently licensed for educational broadcast use but mostly unused. In July of 2018, the FCC announced a plan to refarm frequencies from 3.7 to 4.2 GHz, collectively referred to as the C-band, that today carry satellite TV. And in October of that year, it released plans for a separate set of frequencies around 3.5 GHz called CBRS. Short for Citizens Broadband Radio Service, this has no connection to CB radio; this band is instead used by the Department of Defense and satellite links.
Two weeks ago, the FCC announced yet another set of frequencies in this neighborhood—3.45 to 3.55 GHz—would be freed up by the DoD.
Of those, only CBRS is available now, thanks to part of it being unlicensed; an auction for the rest just wrapped up, grossing $4.6 billion.
Phil Kendall, director of the service provider group at Strategy Analytics, wrote in an email that C-band should become available starting December of 2021, 2.5 GHz wouldn’t happen until “late 2021 or perhaps 2022 at earliest,” and 3.45-3.55 GHz would become available in 2022.
Of all these, C-band matters most for the sake of global compatibility, Kendall and Entner note. That’s where the Europeans are using 5G,” says Entner. “That is where the Chinese are using 5G.”
But it’s also the one band where the transition costs include rocket fuel. Satellite operators Intelsat and SES estimated this summer that they would collectively spend almost $3 billion to launch 11 new satellites and upgrade ground equipment.
Feld, no fan in general of the FCC under Trump, credited the commission with orchestrating this smoothly. “We’re going along at a reasonable pace,” he said, adding that the FCC should set limits on how much spectrum any one firm can buy in auctions.
Once each auction concludes, the winners will need to build out these frequencies across their networks. Greengart’s estimate for widespread availability: “It’ll take somewhere between 6 to 18 months before you have a serious footprint.”
Whither your new 5G phone?
The good news for you, the understandably confused smartphone shopper: Your next phone should support all these frequencies out of the box.
“They’re all running Qualcomm chipsets that are pretty flexible on what frequencies they’ll work with,” said Greengart. “At a bare minimum, you should be able to take a phone that Samsung is selling today, with 5G in it, give it a software update, and have it be able to see the network.”
But just because you can buy a 5G Android phone today—or presumably, a 5G iPhone in the near future—and have it work on tomorrow’s spectrum doesn’t mean you rush out and buy a 5G phone if your current 4G phone is still performing nicely. Smartphone makers still have work to do reducing the size and power consumption of 5G components.
“That’s the nature of technology anyway,” Greengart says. “Tomorrow’s 5G phone will work better than today’s 5G phone.”