Timely clearance of mid-band spectrum is essential for U.S. to remain at forefront of global 5G race

TBR perspective

Significant progress has been made on 5G ecosystem development since the 2018 5G Americas Analyst Forum held last October, as commercial mobile 5G services have been launched by the four U.S. Tier 1 operators, as well as in Uruguay by state-run operator ANTEL, over the past year. However, the infancy of the 5G era in the Americas has been somewhat underwhelming due to tepid smartphone adoption, the limited range of service on millimeter wave spectrum, and lack of coverage outside major metro areas.

The U.S. is at risk of falling behind other countries, especially South Korea and China, in the global 5G race. 5G adoption is growing at a more accelerated rate in South Korea, as the country gained 2 million 5G subscribers within the first four months of commercial services being offered and reached 3 million 5G subscribers as of September. South Korea’s rapid growth is being driven by its widespread 5G coverage, which is expected to reach 80% of the population by the end of 2019, as well as operators heavily subsidizing 5G devices to offset high smartphone prices. Conversely, China will make a strong entrance into the 5G market by launching commercial services in 50 major cities in the beginning of October, with plans to deploy 100,000 5G sites by the end of 2019.

The greatest barrier to the U.S. competing at the forefront of the global 5G race is its current lack of mid-band spectrum as global operators across all major regions have already been allocated a significant amount of mid-band licenses to support initial deployments. Offering 5G services across a mix of low-band, mid-band and high-band spectrum is critical to provide optimal coverage. Though deploying services on millimeter wave spectrum is necessary for U.S. operators to realize the fastest 5G speeds, the licenses are limited by the short range of coverage they provide.

Conversely, low-band spectrum will provide the coverage range necessary for operators including AT&T (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile (Nasdaq: TMUS) to deploy nationwide 5G services in 2020, but the spectrum will not yield significantly faster speeds compared to LTE. Mid-band spectrum provides the best of both worlds, speed and range of coverage, and the acquisition of mid-band licenses will play a pivotal role in the Americas’ position in the global 5G market as well as how individual operators compete for 5G market share in their respective countries.

Nearly 200 industry analysts and representatives from well-known telecom operators and vendors convened at the 2019 5G Americas Analyst Forum to discuss the state of the developing 5G market in North America and Latin America. The event featured an opening presentation from T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray regarding 5G leadership in the Americas, a fireside chat with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, and a choice of 26 roundtable discussions focused on key 5G topics including IoT, edge computing, 5G network infrastructure and technologies, regulatory considerations, and private cellular networks. 

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