The assignment of 6GHz spectrum is one of the hottest topics amongst spectrum experts and telecoms analysts at the moment. Of course, for most internet users, and even for a lot of industry insiders, it garners the exact lack of interest one would expect when they hear the words spectrum, frequency band or the next World Radiocommunication Conference. This is unlikely to change any time soon. But regardless of whether or not the average consumer cares, there is no question anyone using the internet in the next 15 years will be impacted by what their government decides to do with the 6GHz band, writes KALVIN BAHIA .
The impact broadband technologies have had over the last decade should not need restating, nor should the role they have played since the outbreak of coronavirus(COVID-19 ). Broadband connectivity has driven increases in GDP and employment, reduced poverty and enabled reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. What perhaps does need clarifying is these impacts are further enhanced when broadband technologies are upgraded, whether it’s from 3G to 4G to 5G or from xDSL to fibre-to-the-home. Economists often say spectrum should be allocated in a manner which maximises the social and economic value to society and the use of spectrum to provide broadband connectivity is a prime example of this.
Licensed, unlicensed or both?
What happens, however when the two main use cases of a band are licensed or unlicensed use? In particular, how should governments choose between using spectrum for 5G new radio (NR) which provides wide area indoor and outdoor broadband coverage, or Wi-Fi which supports fixed broadband with local wireless connections in homes and premises?
This is the decision many governments around the world currently face for the 6GHz band and they are already taking divergent approaches. Some have assigned the full band for unlicensed use, while others are considering it for licensed use. A third group are allocating the lower part of 6GHz (5925MHz/5945MHz to 6425MHz) for unlicensed and considering the upper part (6425MHz to 7125MHz) for licensed.
The 6GHz band represents the largest remaining single block of mid-band spectrum which can be allocated to licensed mobile or unlicensed services in the foreseeable future, which means governments need to take a carefully considered decision. To assist policymakers in performing such an assessment, GSMA Intelligence recently published a cost-benefit analysis for different authorisation models for the 6GHz band in 12 countries. The results of the study show the optimal policy in each market depends on the expected adoption of 5G and fixed fibre and cable broadband services, the availability of spectrum in other bands and the speeds fixed broadband can offer consumers.
Identifying the capacity gaps
In 2021, the GSMA and Coleago Consulting showed enabling the full capabilities of 5G will mean that around 2GHz of mid-band spectrum needs to be made available between 2025 and 2030. In most countries, this will require spectrum in the 6GHz band, without which either the cost of 5G deployment will increase, impacting the affordability and use of the technology, or it will result in poorer network quality, especially if operators reach the limits of network densification. This means assigning spectrum in the 6GHz band will address network capacity constraints and ensure consumers and enterprises can realise the full socio-economic benefits of 5G.
What about Wi-Fi? Currently, even if you have a fibre-to-the-home broadband connection, it’s unlikely you will be able to access speeds above 300Mb/s to 400Mb/s, in which case Wi-Fi is probably not a bottleneck to improved performance. In fact, even if speeds reach 1Gb/s or 5Gb/s, there is enough unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi to cope with demand. In this case, the GSMA Intelligence study shows allocating the full 6GHz band for licensed mobile will drive the greatest economic benefit, at least in the countries considered.
What happens if fixed broadband speeds climb even higher to 10Gb/s? This is a possibility over the next 15 years in some markets. Even then, for most countries there should be enough existing unlicensed spectrum to meet demand if Wi-Fi efficiently uses spectrum in high bands (the unlicensed 60GHz band), as is expected of licensed 5G with the use of high-band mm-Wave spectrum. If it does not, then Wi-Fi spectrum will be a bottleneck that stops consumers from fully benefitting from fibre and cable broadband, and in most countries, allocating the lower 6GHz band for unlicensed use and the upper end for licensed mobile in a split-band approach will drive the greatest economic benefit (while in the remaining countries, allocating the full band for licensed use will still be the best choice). However, not using any of the high bands for Wi-Fi would be a very inefficient use of spectrum.
Is there a scenario where allocating the full band for unlicensed use generates the greatest socio-economic benefit?
Not according to the GSMA Intelligence study, because allocating the lower 6GHz band is sufficient to meet demand, even if the 60GHz band is not used. This means there are no additional gains from allocating the full 6GHz band for unlicensed use.
The analysis highlighted in the report shows how important it is to assign the 6GHz band based on existing evidence and the expected developments in the broadband market.
Indeed, when spectrum is not assigned using a market-based approach, such as an auction, most governments and international organisations advocate conducting an impact assessment to identify the best policy option. Given the majority of countries are yet to take a decision on the use of the full 6GHz band, this presents an ideal time for policymakers to address the evidence gap and ensure their citizens get the most out of this spectrum.
- Bahia is economist at GSMA Intelligence.
- Editor’s Note: The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.