4G changes life; 5G will change society. 5G will not only improve the bandwidth but also extend from human-centric communications to include both human-centric and communications. 5G will open a new era of IoT, unlocking possibilities that are beyond our imagination. The whole society has great expectations for 5G, and spectrum is key to 5G's future.
Worldwide Spectrum Allocations
Spectrum is the core resource of the mobile communication development. Spectrum planning determines the development patterns of the industry. As 5G development accelerates, the spectrum has become the focus of the entire industry chain.
At present, governments of different countries have all elevated the 5G network construction to the strategic level of the ICT industry. Considering the progress of global 5G trials, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and China will become the first countries to deploy 5G networks, followed by some European countries. Some Middle Eastern countries also have the need to rapidly deploy 5G networks. For example, the UAE will host the World Expo in 2020 and Qatar will host the deployments. Most African countries still have low 4G penetration rates, and will be relatively lagging behind in 5G deployment.
Countries represented by China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and regions represented by Europe have announced plans to use spectrum in mid-bands (around 3.5 GHz and 4.9 GHz) and high bands (around 26 GHz and 28 GHz), seizing the first-mover advantage in 5G.
As early as 2016, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unanimously voted to free up almost 11 GHz of high-band spectrum above 24 GHz for 5G use, comprising 3.85 GHz licensed and 38.6–40 GHz bands and 7 GHz of unlicensed spectrum in the 64–71 GHz band.
In December 2018, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology officially released the plan to use 2515–2675 MHz, 3300–3600 MHz and 4800–5000 MHz bands for 5G, with 3300–3400 MHz limited to indoor scenario. China is also the first country to release a 5G mid-band plan.
UK's Ofcom has identified three bands to support 5G: 700 MHz (low band), 3.4–3.8 GHz (mid-band), 24.25–27.5 GHz (high-band). Ofcom has completed the auction for portions of 3.5 GHz spectrum, and four operators (Vodafone, 3UK, O2 and EE) won a total of 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3.4 GHz band (3410–3480 MHz, 3500–3580 MHz). According to the outcomes of the auction, the price per Hz paid for 3.4 GHz is 48% higher than that for 2.3 GHz (the 4G spectrum that was auctioned at the same time). This proves the importance that each operator attaches to 5G spectrum. Vodafone took the largest share of 5G spectrum, taking 50 MHz; O2 and EE won 40 MHz each; and 3UK only got 20 MHz. How to give full play to 5G's advantages with such narrow-bandwidth spectrum will become a focus of attention for UK operators.
South Korea has also been at the forefront of spectrum auctions with the 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz spectrum auction complete. In the 3.5 GHz band, 280 MHz of spectrum in the 3420–3700 MHz range was auctioned, of which, SK Telecom and KT each acquired 100 MHz, and LG U+ got 80 MHz. In the 28 GHz segment, all three operators obtained 800 MHz. From the perspective of spectrum allocation, South Korea is in the forefront, and the fact that each operator has obtained large-bandwidth spectrum is more conducive to 5G construction and service development.
In Europe, both Spain and Italy have auctioned portions of 3.5 GHz spectrum. In Spain, the 3.4–3.6 GHz band has been assigned before, and the spectrum allocation is relatively fragmented with some spectrum being used for TD-LTE. The remaining 200 MHz of spectrum in the 3600–3800 MHz band was auctioned in July 2018. This auction has specified an operator's bandwith but not the frequency ranges. If you look at the overall spectrum allocations in the 3400–3800 MHz band, except the newly auctioned spectrum, the spectrum each operator has in other frequency bands is non-contiguous. This is not conducive to 5G construction, and there is the possibility of switching frequency bands between operators.
In Italy, the 3400-3600 MHz band has been occupied. The auction of spectrum in the 3600–3800 MHz band has been completed. In the 3600–3720 MHz range, Vodafone Italia won 80 MHz, and Iliad and Wind Tre won 20 MHz each. Telecom Italy captured 80 MHz in the 3720–3800 MHz range.
Which Band is Better?
It is believed that many operators are constantly thinking about which band is better. There is no best band but only suitable band. Operators' use of bands should be fully aligned with their business plans for 5G. In view of the current trends in the industry, sub-6 GHz will be the best choice for the early 5G phase, and then high frequency millimeter waves. Among the three bands in sub-6 GHz (2.6 GHz, 3.5 GHz and 4.9 GHz), 2.6 GHz and 3.5 GHz will take off a little earlier. For China, to use the 2.6 GHz and 4.9 GHz bands, efforts are required to build, cultivate, and constantly improve the market. This brings opportunities as well as challenges to China Mobile with trial spectrum in the 2.6 GHz and 4.9 GHz bands. With 2.6 GHz that offers obvious advantages in coverage, operators can deploy 5G in SA mode while reusing existing network assets. To match China Mobile's 5G deployment plans, ZTE is actively promoting the development of the industry chain, working hard on its equipment, terminals or IoT devices. Both China Telecom and China Unicom have received the 3.5 GHz band, which is the mainstream 5G frequency band in the world. The 3.5 GHz industry chain is a bit more mature with a larger scale and lower costs. At present, 3.5 GHz progresses faster in trial activity and is the best opportunity for China Unicom and China Telecom.
Considering many factors such as spectrum usability, 3.5 GHz has become the preferred band for 5G deployments for most operators, and can be the global roaming band for 5G in the future. 5G construction needs to consider both coverage and capacity. Utilizing antenna technologies such as massive multiple input multiple output (Massive MIMO), 3.5 GHz can offer coverage that is comparable to that of FDD band of 1800 MHz. With 3.5 GHz, operators can reuse existing sites to build 5G networks. Although large contiguous bands and rich spectrum resources are available in high bands for 5G, there are challenges in network coverage. The 3.5 GHz mid-band will still be the primary band for initial 5G deployments.
Getting Ready for 5G
The global mainstream operators' 5G spectrum battle is in full swing, but the wireless spectrum resources are always limited and scarce. Improving spectrum efficiency has always been the key to the upgrade of mobile networks from generation to generation. Multi-antenna space-division multiplexing is the only technology that can double the spectrum efficiency. As the most important space-division multiplexing technology, Massive MIMO supports more precise beam control and a higher number of concurrent streams, and has become the core technology of 5G.
ZTE has innovatively proposed Pre5G, a technology that applies Massive MIMO technology to 4G networks in advance. The technology won the “Best Mobile Technology Breakthrough Award” and “Outstanding Overall Mobile Technology—The CTO's Choice” awards at MWC 2016. It has successfully been put into commercial use, which will significantly accelerate the commercialization of 5G Massive MIMO. ZTE expects that Massive MIMO will offer more possibilities to operators who has less spectrum for 5G.
In 2017, with the joint efforts of the entire 5G industry, breakthroughs was made in 5G standards, key technologies, and industrial environments. In 2018, 5G entered the phase for large-scale field tests and pre-commercial roll-outs, and standards and technologies were further improved. In 2019 and 2020, large-scale commercial deployments of 5G will begin, and there will be continuous deepening and expansion of the 5G commercialization.
5G is coming, and ZTE is ready to go!
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