US Wireless Industry Calls for More 5G Spectrum

  • US wireless communication industry body CTIA held its 5G Summit in Washington, DC, on May 17, bringing together industry and government officials.
  • Industry speakers were united in their warning that more spectrum must be auctioned off to keep up with rapid increases in network traffic.
  • Leaders also cautioned that without a clear strategy for spectrum allocation, the US risked losing its leadership position in the wireless industry to competitors like China.

Top officials from the US wireless industry and government gathered in Washington, DC, on May 17 for industry body CTIA’s 5G Summit. Speakers reflected on the impressive progress that has already been made in building out 5G networks and opening new use cases, while also looking forward to the work yet to be done and the challenges facing the industry. There was a palpable sense of optimism about the opportunities that 5G still promises and reminders that in many ways it is still in its early stages. But industry leaders made clear that for 5G to meet its potential, policymakers must do more to support it.

How far 5G has come

Speakers at the event laid plain just how much progress has been made on 5G. By most measures, it has been the most quickly adopted wireless generation yet. Between the low-band, mid-band and mmWave frequencies, Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T cover 320 million Americans. And their mid-band rollouts have been swift – AT&T’s Egal Ilbaz noted that the operator would reach 200 million PoPs by the end of the year, while T-Mobile’s Neville Ray noted that the company was closing in on 300 million PoPs.

Midband Pops

*Based off Earnings Call Commentary

5G rollout is quickly transforming how consumers use their devices. It has opened the first killer 5G application – fixed wireless access (FWA). Verizon Business CEO Kyle Malady stated that data consumption is growing faster than it ever has before, partially as users flock to Verizon’s FWA services in available markets, but also as mobile users take advantage of improved bandwidth and lower latency by spending more time streaming video and gaming. 5G has also made FWA a legitimate alternative or supplement to fiber in some markets, especially in rural areas where fiber to the home is too expensive to be a solution. FWA subscriber counts are growing rapidly, with net additions outpacing wireless additions in the first quarter of the year. With great speed, capacity, and low latency, FWA using mid-band 5G provides another strong solution to the toolkit for closing the digital divide.

Where 5G is going next

While 5G has already had a substantial impact on the consumer space, its impact will be the largest in enterprise in the coming years as it powers connected factories, smart cities, connected agriculture, and more. Leaders from Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and DISH were all touting the opportunities and flexibility that virtualized, software-defined networks would offer for developers in enterprise, allowing networks to be optimized for the specific needs of the end use case. Distributed computing at the edge will also enable low-latency AI and ML applications for efficiency gains. Progress has been slow in enterprise, and the murky economic environment will discourage some companies from experimenting with 5G to improve their productivity. But with mid-band rollouts nearing completion, the stage is set for 5G to enable the enterprise segment. According to comments made at the event, network operators in China already have over 25,000 orders for private networks. The US is behind here, but that will change in the coming years.

5G Industrial Uses

The wireless industry also has a real chance to narrow the digital divide over the coming decade. The advent of FWA provides an alternative to fiber that in many topographies will be more cost-effective while providing the speeds and capacity needed to connect rural communities, enabling commerce, education, and many other activities. But as Senator Lujan of New Mexico noted, the industry must do more to make sure that underserved communities are not left behind and push to close the digital divide through programs like the affordable connectivity program for low-income Americans.

Challenges facing wireless industry

While there are major opportunities for 5G, there are also barriers to reaching its potential. The biggest challenge may be growing geopolitical tensions between the US and China. Leaders from Samsung and Ericsson warned that state subsidies for Chinese infrastructure players make them very difficult to beat on price, leading many countries to opt for Chinese providers for their wireless networks. Additionally, the Chinese state’s clear and aggressive strategy for rolling out 5G has given it a lead and Chinese network operators and enterprises are gaining practical experience in implementing new use cases before Western countries. This will give Chinese companies a significant competitive advantage over their Western counterparts and a head start in creating the platforms of the next decade. Looking further down the road towards 6G, geopolitical tensions and decoupling between the US and China could result in a split standard, which would hurt the whole industry by reducing scale and interoperability. More consequently, this would undermine global growth. The US must work alongside allies across the globe to retain a single standard from which all can benefit.

Data Consumption

*Based off of AT&T Comments at CTIA 5G Summit

To confront these challenges, industry leaders were united in calling on US policymakers to reauthorize the FCC to hold spectrum auctions and open more spectrum for operators. Already, the rate of data consumption is growing quickly, while spectrum is also needed for new enterprise use cases. But just giving the FCC the authority to hold spectrum auctions is not enough – the US government must deliver a clear plan and strategy for when spectrum will become available so that operators, component and hardware providers, and businesses can prepare beforehand to make use of this spectrum. The haphazard and inconsistent nature of US spectrum auctions puts the country’s industry at a disadvantage compared to China.

In conclusion

5G has come a long way over the last several years, but there is still work to be done and opportunities to be actualized. In order to reach underserved communities, serve enterprises and compete effectively on the global stage, more spectrum must be opened to operators and a clear schedule and strategy for spectrum allocation articulated. For the US to retain its leading role in the wireless industry, policymakers and the industry must work hand in hand.

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