Spectrum in 5G: The Innovation Boost Starts Here

Tuesday 8/6/19 09:00am
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Posted By Ana Schafer
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5G is an opportunity to give your applications a big innovation boost

Engineered to support a wide variety of needs and data services in a single network, 5G is a unified connectivity fabric that offers you the potential to expand your applications to new users in new ways. Developers of apps in areas like immersive entertainment, energy use, sustainable cities, logistics, agriculture, public safety and healthcare stand to benefit from 5G and its breakthroughs in spectrum use.

Going all the way back to 2G, the wireless industry has been on a quest to use wireless spectrum more efficiently. Smarter, tighter use of spectrum bands is one of the keys to accommodating the estimated seven-fold increase in global mobile data traffic by 2022. That’s why 5G NR (New Radio), the 5G air interface, has been designed to expand mobile to be usable in more spectrum bands, including upper mid-bands (e.g., 3.5 GHz) and millimeter wave bands (e.g., 28 GHz).

One of the biggest advances in 5G is that it uses spectrum more efficiently than previous generations of wireless. Greater spectrum efficiency means that the advanced antenna techniques in 5G can carry even more bits per cycle of radio frequency.

Which spectrum bands does 5G use?

Previous generations of wireless networks have operated mostly in licensed spectrum bands below 3 GHz. As shown in the diagram, 5G introduces two major changes in spectrum use.

First, 5G has been designed from the beginning to support not only licensed but also shared and unlicensed spectrum.

Licensed spectrum will continue to be the heart of ubiquitous wireless connectivity and the mainstay of moving data from point A to point B. The use of licensed spectrum is exclusive, with more than 40 frequency bands reserved globally for LTE and many more for 5G. Beyond that, the flexible 5G NR framework is designed to also support shared and unlicensed spectrum, an important step in widening the path over which data can travel.

Why are shared and unlicensed spectrum significant? Because they open up new ways to reduce the potential bottlenecks that result from our unquenchable appetite for data. For example, spectrum sharing can unlock bands that are only lightly used by the carriers currently in those bands. Besides, a great deal of spectrum, especially in the higher bands, may be shared or unlicensed.

The other change is that 5G is designed to operate in bands below 1 GHz and up to 100 GHz and beyond. Below 1 GHz, the bands offer the wide-area coverage needed for categories of 5G services like massive IoT. The bands between 1 and 6 GHz offer greater bandwidth for the categories of eMBB and mission-critical control, where high reliability and low latency are important. (I covered those main categories of 5G services in my previous post.)


Click the image to enlage.

What is mmWave technology?

The big difference in 5G spectrum is in the bands above 24 GHz, also known as millimeter wave or mmWave.

An important objective of 5G is to lower the cost per bit of data compared to 4G LTE. One way to do that is to use newly available spectrum, including the mmWave range, in higher bands. mmWave will open up vast amounts of bandwidth that were previously not usable for wide-area mobile communications.

By nature, high-frequency radio waves offer much higher bandwidth, meaning data delivery at higher capacity and greater speed. However, they do not provide the same coverage as low-frequency waves. With the high frequencies of mmWave come high path loss and high susceptibility to blockage by dense physical objects. Besides, it’s difficult to pack the power and antenna requirements of mmWave into a mobile device. That’s why mmWave has been limited to stationary applications like wireless docking, offered by technologies like 802.11ad at 60 GHz.

But antenna technology has evolved and signal processing has advanced in areas like intelligent beamforming and beam-tracking. That progress allows mmWave to provide increased coverage and connectivity with reduced interference, so the idea of “mobilizing” mmWave is no longer out of reach.

Where will more spectrum and greater spectral efficiency lead?

Access to more spectrum and more efficient use of all spectrum promises more capacity, better user experience and new ways of deploying 5G networks. Mobile operators with licensed spectrum will benefit, of course, but 5G also offers new possibilities for businesses with limited or no licensed spectrum.

mmWave portends new business opportunities from 5G. Operators will benefit, of course, from mmWave in public wide-area networks, but the prospect of private indoor mmWave networks means that enterprises too will benefit. On these networks, mmWave complements Wi-Fi while enforcing cellular-grade security with independence from the public network. Such private IoT networks can be deployed in mines, warehouses, ports, smart buildings, factories and ports. Here are a few use cases for taking mmWave indoors:

  • Indoor enterprises — Most offices use Wi-Fi to connect computers, servers, printers and related devices. Co-siting a mmWave small cell alongside an existing Wi-Fi access point allows both devices to share power and wired backhaul. As mmWave complements indoor Wi-Fi, user experience improves through multi-gigabit speed and ultra-low latency.
  • Dense venues — In large spaces such as convention centers, concert halls and stadiums, huge numbers of mobile device users can exhaust available network bandwidth. The common approach has been to add wireless access points and make the network denser, but with mmWave, networks have access to hundreds of megahertz of additional bandwidth.
  • Transportation hubs — In crowded spaces like subway stops, airport terminals and train stations, co-siting mmWave with Wi-Fi offers high coverage and connectivity with high speed.

Next Steps

That’s a brief overview of spectrum in 5G. As a developer, you’re probably not going to write your code differently to take greater advantage of the bands. But with the advent of 5G and all the innovation it promises, we think it’s useful for you to be conversant in spectrum.

Almost every one of the concepts above is its own white paper and webcast, so have a look at our page on 5G spectrum sharing for a deeper dive. And stay tuned for my next post in this series, on rolling out 5G.