It is, by now, widely known and accepted 5G will drive innovation and economic growth, deliver greater societal benefit compared with previous mobile technology generations, and will enable new digital services and business models to thrive.
However, realising the technology’s potential is not without its challenges. Spectrum, in particular, may be the lifeblood of mobile services, but its availability in the short- and long-term continues to be a concern as mobile operators look to build the best possible networks.
With growing momentum for 5G, the current spectrum landscape is more dynamic than ever before. The ecosystem today must contend with new spectrum allocation and deployment models, new enterprise competition for spectrum resources, and new demands on existing 2G and 3G spectrum resources.
As much as spectrum resources are critical for 5G rollouts, the arrival of 5G has come with new dynamics for the spectrum landscape.
To help understand these dynamics across the mobile industry and beyond, GSMA Intelligence has introduced a new spectrum-centric quarterly report series. This leverages the GSMA Intelligence spectrum database and the new Spectrum Navigator tool to identify key trends and insights. The report outlines the latest developments in the spectrum world, and the key trends to watch going forward. It covers both the nascent 5G spectrum ecosystem as well as spectrum for previous generation networks, highlighting important developments including past and future spectrum assignments, network launches, spectrum pricing, refarming and network sunsets.
Drawn from the first edition of the report, here are the five key trends which are important right now in the spectrum world:
- Spectrum sharing on the rise. Exclusive licensing has been the main mechanism for spectrum licensing so far, with no significant use of shared spectrum before the 5G era. However, interest in spectrum sharing is growing, as the wider mobile ecosystem explores new network models (including private networks) and new use cases. This is likely to continue in 2021 and beyond with more regulators having to consider spectrum sharing requirements or conditions as part of their new 5G spectrum assignment models, to cater for vertical needs.
- New momentum for spectrum auctions. In 2021, a mix of 4G and 5G spectrum bands will be assigned in a few major markets, giving operators the opportunity to renew existing licences or acquire new spectrum. South Africa will assign long-awaited spectrum for 4G, a major breakthrough considering assignment plans started in 2011; Canada will have its first 5G auction to assign key spectrum in the 3.5GHz band; the UK will conduct a second 5G auction, releasing additional much-needed C-band and the entire 700MHz band; and in Latin America, Brazil, Chile and Peru will see their first major 5G assignments. Overall, a total of 30 markets have so far announced plans for new spectrum assignments in 2021.
- mmWave deployments will increase the value of related spectrum. Assignments of spectrum in mmWave bands are likely to gain momentum as 5G rollouts and adoption make progress and the mmWave ecosystem shows signs of readiness. Already, 12 countries have released mmWave spectrum for 5G, which is particularly remarkable considering the spectrum was only internationally allocated to mobile services at the recent World Radiocommunication Conference in November 2019 (WRC-19). Deployments in mmWave spectrum coupled with device development will increase the value of this spectrum band.
- 5G deployments in developing markets will be fuelled by refarmed spectrum. As developing markets enter the 5G era, spectrum availability will become crucial for operators who wish to deploy networks and launch commercial services. If governments in these countries are slow to act, operators will be required to explore ways of refarming existing spectrum bands to support deployments of new 5G networks. Where possible, operators will look at shutting down legacy networks to free up spectrum.
- Network sunsets will pick up. The rollout of 5G networks has led operators and regulators to step up plans to switch off legacy networks and refarm 2G and 3G spectrum for 4G and 5G. This year is expected to be the one with the most 2G and 3G network sunsets ever. The shutdown of legacy networks will allow operators to shift frequencies towards new, more spectral-efficient networks. By reducing the number of technologies maintained, operators should also be able to lower running costs significantly, rationalise device portfolios and simplify tariff structures.
More insights from the report and other spectrum related topics will be discussed in GSMA’s upcoming LinkedIn Live event on the 9th of March.