FCC, U.S. Mobile Industry Eye 5G, Spectrum Challenges

Josh LongThe U.S. – and nations around the globe – are already working on development of fifth-generation (5G) wireless services that will power an increasingly connected world. Key to the success of 5G is making available spectrum to meet the demand for machine-to-machine (M2M)  communications and other future mobile services.

In the hopes of fostering the development of next-generation services, the Federal Communications Commission recently opened a notice of inquiry to examine the use of spectrum above 24 Gigahertz for mobile broadband. Although there is no consensus on the definition of 5G, it is believed by some that the technology could support a 1,000-fold increase in traffic, according to the notice.

The FCC cautioned that its proceeding was not an attempt “to define, standardize or specify the characteristics of 5G service.”

But regulators know faster and more sophisticated mobile services are just around the corner. It is expected that wireless carriers will begin deploying 5G in 2020. Researchers have much to do before the end of this decade. From the United States to Asia, nations around the world are eying the next generation of wireless technology. For instance, an FCC commissioner recently noted that the European Union entered into a cooperative agreement with South Korea, planning to collaborate on a global definition of 5G and research. 

Meanwhile, standards bodies and industry groups intend to complete the development of standards from 2016 through 2018, according to the FCC.

“You might not see deployments for multiple years but the work has to be done now with the standard setting bodies, the manufacturers,” said Scott Bergmann, vice president of regulatory affairs with CTIA-The Wireless Association. “It is a multiyear process but that doesn’t make it any less important.”

Enter Bell Laboratories, the famous, Nobel prize-winning research division of Alcatel-Lucent. Theodore (Tod) Sizer leads wireless research at Bell Labs. He said about 100 members of his team are looking into myriad issues that will influence 5G.

Researchers are working on developing technologies that will work well with the likes of two-way video gaming and M2M communications such as temperature sensors and automobile applications. Bell Labs is investigating such varied aspects of mobile network development as preserving battery life and building networks that can support new apps.

“The next three years are crucial,” Sizer said, referring to 5G research efforts.

Other telecom equipment makers working on new mobile technologies include Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Qualcomm and Samsung among others, according to the FCC’s Oct. 17 notice of inquiry.

“Most infrastructure device chipset people in the ecosystem on the supply side are all doing the research on 5G — what it might be, what it could be,” said Chris Pearson, president of 4G Americas, an organization that supports vendors and mobile operators that adopted LTE and HSPA+ 4G technologies. “The whole ecosystem is looking at 5G because they realize there’s been enough discussions … that these discussions need to happen on a broad basis.”

As a part of the mobile ecosystem, U.S. regulators are seeking to promote the availability of spectrum that could meet the demand for new services in 2020 and beyond.

Today, most wireless networks are built on spectrum that ranges from 600 MHz to 3 GHz, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said during an Oct. 14 speech.

Until recently, conventional wisdom held that mobile services in bands above 24 GHz were not feasible because the radio waves at such frequencies travel in straight lines. But the FCC noted equipment makers are developing non line-of-sight services that operate in higher frequency bands with greater range.

“By using innovative technologies that can simultaneously track and acquire multiple signals reflecting and ricocheting off obstacles in the physical environment, future devices might be able to leverage much higher frequency bands, those above 24 GHz, for mobile applications,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement that accompanied the notice of inquiry.

It’s not too early to start the conversation because it can take several years to repurpose spectrum, according to Bergmann of CTIA-The Wireless Association.

The National Broadband Plan, released by the FCC in 2010, recommended the agency make available 500 MHz of new spectrum, including 300 MHz within five years.

An AWS-3 auction that is slated for Nov. 13 is expected to fetch around $10 billion and make available 65 MHz of spectrum. AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and a number of smaller carriers have filed paperwork with the FCC, expressing their interest in an auction that will sell more than 1,600 total licenses.

The FCC also is preparing for an “incentive auction,” which will give broadcasters the right to relinquish spectrum for a portion of proceeds that could generate as much as $45 billion. The agency has set a goal of freeing up 120 MHz of spectrum, although broadcasters’ willingness to participate in the auction is crucial to its success. Thanks to court challenges to the FCC’s auction rules, the agency recently announced plans to delay the auction until early 2016.

The spectrum is important to wireless carriers because it can travel longer distances and better penetrate buildings and other obstacles than higher-band spectrum, resulting in lower costs to deploy it, according to Sprint, T-Mobile USA and others in an FCC filing.

The wireless industry is constantly searching for additional capacity to meet the soaring demand for mobile data traffic, which has skyrocketed roughly 730 percent between 2010 and end of 2013, according to CTIA.

“Spectrum is like water to a fish when it comes to the mobile broadband industry,” Bergmann said. “Mobile broadband industry needs spectrum to survive and prosper.”

The FCC also is seeking to identify spectrum below 3 GHz for commercial mobile use.

Research into the use of spectrum above 24GHz, and the continued development of next-generation wireless services, aren’t expected to immediately make 4G obsolete in the United States.

A white paper released by 4G Americas cited a reported consensus that 4G has a lot of life left and is continuing to evolve. 4G Americas reported in September that North America led the world with 127 million LTE connections as of the first half of this year, controlling 45 percent of the world’s 280 million LTE subscriptions.

LTE and LTE Advanced will be relevant technologies in Asia, Europe and the United States “through the end of the decade,” Pearson said, “and well into the next decade.”

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