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Seeking the next core band for IMT service

by Guang Yang | 9月 04, 2020

Spectrum is at the core of the mobile business.

Spectrum always plays a key role in the mobile technology evolution and the mobile business strategy. When the mobile communications move from voice to data, from narrow band to wide band, the demand for spectrum also evolves. A mobile system has to be deployed in the higher spectrum band to get wider bandwidth. On the other hand, the higher spectrum band will lead to higher network deployment cost, because the coverage of a single base station shrinks with the spectrum band moving higher. Therefore, mobile network operators have to consider the balance between capacity and coverage, i.e. the balance between performance and cost, when they select the spectrum band for their network. The table below summarizes the system bandwidth of some mainstream mobile technologies and the spectrum bands where the technologies are broadly deployed.

Technology

Peak data rate in downlink

Carrier bandwidth

Core spectrum bands

GSM/GPRS/EDGE

384 Kbps

200 KHz

900 MHz, 1800 MHz

WCDMA/HSPA

14 Mbps

5 MHz

2100 MHz, 900 MHz

LTE

150 Mbps

20 MHz

2600 MHz, 1800 MHz, 800 MHz, 2100 MHz…

5G NR

~1.8 Gbps*

100 MHz

3500 MHz, 2600 MHz, mmWave, 700 MHz…

* Note: DL / UL ratio = 3:1

As indicated by the table above, each technology has a spectrum portfolio that includes multiple bands. The spectrum portfolio should get a good balance between capacity and coverage. Meanwhile, a global harmonized spectrum band is important for the economic scale of a technology.

Mid-band key for 5G success

Today’s 5G rollout in global market proves these observations. Even if 5G NR in mmWave band can provide ultra-high data rate, most of the leading 5G operators are deploying 5G networks in the mid-band, such as 3.5 GHz band or 2.6 GHz band.

The mid-bands can provide a much better balance between capacity and coverage than the high band (e.g. mmWave) or low band (e.g. sub-1 GHz bands). OpenSignal’s Benchmarking the global 5G user experience report shows that the average 5G download speed in South Korea, where the 5G networks are deployed in 3.5 GHz band, is more than 6 times the average 5G download speed in the US, where the 5G networks are mainly deployed in mmWave and sub-1 GHz band.

The OpenSignal’s test report for the US market indicates that either the 5G network in mmWave band (such as Verizon’s 5G) or the network in sub-1 GHz band (such as T-Mobile’s 5G) can’t provide the balance between data speed and network availability. This significantly impacts on the user experience. Only the mid-band spectrum is able to guarantee the 5G user experience in the early phase of network rollout.

That’s why most of the leading 5G operators select mid-band to deploy their 5G networks. This, in turn, leads to the growing scale of economy. By the end of June, there have been 66 million 5G users in China and 7.4 million in South Korea. The fast growing 5G subscriber base significantly boosts the ecosystem of 5G in mid-band.  The mid-band, particularly the 3.5 GHz band, has become the actual core band of the 5G system in global market.

Sustainable growth requires additional spectrum.

With VR/AR, cloud gaming and other innovative applications introduced to the 5G service portfolio, the consumer’s data usage has been significantly increased. In South Korea, the average data consumption of 5G users is almost 2.5 times the average usage of 4G users. In China, the average data usage has been over 10 GB/month by June 2020, which represents a YoY growth at 29.3%. According to ITU’s IMT traffic estimates for the years 2020 to 2030, the average global mobile traffic per subscription per month would be more than 250 GB/month by 2030. The CAGR of global mobile traffic in 2020-2030 would be around 55%. The growing data consumption will generate demand for additional spectrum resource.

The more important demand comes from B2B market. As pointed by KT’s CEO, Hyeon-Mo Ku, “5G will transform wireless into a B2B-centric network.” According to Strategy Analytics’ forecast, the consumer mobile market will be quite flat between 2020 and 2025. Mobile operators have to seek the new growth engine. The new system capabilities that 5G enables, such as ultra-reliability and low latency, can effectively support operators to explore the opportunities in Industry Internet market. This kind of explorations will also raise demand for spectrum resource, particularly for the additional spectrum band, because the Industry Internet use cases often have different requirements with the consumer use cases.

To serve for the Industry Internet use cases, 5G network is often deployed in a complex radio propagation environment to provide seamless indoor/outdoor coverage, and needs to support ultra-high data speed in uplink rather than in downlink. A licensed spectrum block would be good to isolate harmful interference and guarantee the quality of service. 

6 GHz can be the new core band for 5G and its evolution.

As discussed above, the mid-bands have become the core bands of today’s 5G rollout in global market. Either the growing consumer data traffic or the emerging Industry Internet applications will push mobile operators to seek the next core band for 5G and its evolution. Both B2C and B2B markets have the same requirements on the core band, i.e. a good balance between capacity and coverage, and a global harmonized allocation. From these perspectives, 6 GHz band could be an ideal candidate.

Even though it is higher than 3.5 GHz or 2.6 GHz, the 6 GHz band is still a better balance between capacity and coverage than mmWave band or sub-1 GHz band. Particularly in the industry campus scenario, 5G system in 6 GHz band could provide a seamless indoor/outdoor mobile broadband coverage in both LOS and NLOS environments with a reasonable cost. It’s important for the B2B market growth.

The 6 GHz band (6425 – 7025 MHz and 7025 – 7125 MHz) has been included in the Agenda Item 1.2 of WRC-23. Under the agenda item, the band will be studied and identified for IMT service. China’s regulator has shown clear interest in the band. The regulator even plans to allocate the entire 6 GHz band, i.e. 5925 – 7125, for IMT service. During WRC-19, China delegation actively promoted the 6 GHz as the candidate band for IMT service. As the largest 5G market worldwide, if China adopts 6 GHz band for 5G and its evolution, it could be a great boost to the economic scale of the ecosystem and would be a cornerstone to reach the global harmonization for the band.

We expect to see more industry players and country regulators to join the study on the 6 GHz band to build the foundation for the sustainable growth of global mobile industry in next decade.

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