As if the US’s CBRS band in 3.5 GHz hasn’t been hyped enough as the future face of mobile spectrum, cableco Charter Communications has placed it at the center of what it shamelessly dubbed its ‘6G’ trial. This seemed to ignore the fact – much bewailed by T-Mobile USA – that the US regulator, the FCC, has actually focused on LTE usage in this band, rather than 5G.
That is shortsighted, TMO argues, because elsewhere in the world, the C-Band spectrum (various bands between 3.4 GHz and 4.2 GHz) is being earmarked as a pioneer band for 5G. That is being driven heavily by China and Japan, but is also seen as a way to accelerate early 5G deployments, because in many countries, 3.5 GHz is already available for fixed wireless.
However, the FCC has undoubtedly set valuable precedents with its flexible, multi-tiered licensing approach for CBRS, which will resonate well beyond the specific frequency or radio technology. But they are only the start of a discussion which needs to be held urgently by regulators round the world, especially in the run-up to the World Radio Conference next year (WRC-19), at which global and regional 5G spectrum bands will be identified.
For 5G to be more than just another radio upgrade, largely focused on boosting mobile broadband capacity and increasing cost efficiency (just as 4G did), there need to be new approaches to spectrum licensing. The regulatory frameworks will need to acknowledge the needs of a far wider variety of operators and spectrum owners than just the established MNOs. Shared and unlicensed spectrum, dynamically allocated short term licenses, geographically specific allocations, not to mention the array of regulatory issues raised by network slicing – these will all be important matters to support if 5G is to be effective in enabling a wide range of services and service providers. And this, in turn, will be essential to fulfil its potential to transform enterprise and Internet of Things (IoT) businesses – not just to improve the core consumer mobile broadband business case for MNOs.
Charter has that right at least, in its ‘6G’ hype. It is looking for a spectrum regime which gives it more predictability and quality than the unlicensed free-for-all of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz; more capacity than the sub-6 GHz cellular band allocations; and does not require it to shell out many millions of dollars on those frequencies.
Of course, this has nothing to do with 6G. Integrating dense, localized mobile networks with advanced cable is at the heart of many 5G visions, and even some forward looking 4G projects. Cellular in shared spectrum will support better manageability and quality of service than WiFi in unlicensed, the argument goes, and since most of these shared bands are relatively high frequency, they will be best suited – especially indoors, where the power limits are strict – to small cells. The mixture of these low cost small cell networks and advanced wireline connectivity will enable enterprises or specialized vertical market providers to create optimized ‘sub-nets’ for a city, corporation or industrial zone, while leaving the wide area mobility in the hands of the MNO and its licensed airwaves.
This is an opportunity the US cablecos are watching closely. In particular, Charter will leverage the CBRS spectrum to support its own wireless services (expanding on those it plans to launch this year via its MVNO agreement with Verizon) and to expand these into vertical and business markets.