What Frequency Spectrum Do 5G Networks Use?
5G, or “5th Generation,” cellular technology represents a massive leap forward for wireless mobile communications, far surpassing 4G (LTE|Advanced|Advanced Pro, WiMax), 3G (UMTS|WCDMA, CDMA|1xEV-DO), and 2G (GSM|GPRS, CDMA|1xRTT) communication platforms in terms of data rates and reduced latency.
5G technology promises to deliver a cost- and energy-efficient solution with close-to-universal device reach.
To support all the capabilities it promises to deliver, massive quantities of new radio spectrum (5G NR frequency bands) have been allocated to 5G, notably in millimeter wave (mmWave) bands, known technically as frequency range 2 or FR2. In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened vast amounts of bandwidth in high-band spectrum for 5G.
As a result, the Spectrum Frontiers Proposal (SFP) doubled the amount of mmWave unlicensed spectrum to 14 GHz, creating four times the flexible, mobile-use spectrum the FCC had licensed to date.
In March 2018, the European Union (EU) jumped on the bandwagon and agreed to open the 3.6 and 26 GHz bands by 2020.
Low, Mid and High 5G Spectrum Band Frequencies and Their Allocations
5G will operate on three different spectrum bands. This structure may not seem very important for the average consumer, but it will have varying effects on everyday use.
Low-band spectrum is “sub” 1 GHz spectrum primarily used today by U.S. carriers for 3G and LTE. It provides consumers a broad coverage area with good building penetration, but peak data speeds top out around 100 Mbps.
As a result, this spectrum is quickly becoming deprecated to be reclaimed primarily for 5G in the coming years with ongoing sunset activities in 3G.
According to Digital Trends, T-Mobile is the leading player in the low-band spectrum space, buying a large block of 600 MHz spectrum during FCC auctions in 2017.
Since that purchase, the company has been building out its nationwide 5G network on the spectrum block. Investors and consumers alike are watching closely to see just how T-Mobile manages its 5G rollout.
This spectrum between 1 GHz and 6 GHz provides faster throughput and lower latency than the low-band spectrum. As Digital Trends notes, mid-band transmissions are less suitable for building penetration, but peak speeds can reach as high as 1 Gbps and provide more capacity to the network.
T-Mobile owns most of the unused mid-band spectrum in the U.S. and uses massive MIMO to enhance penetration and coverage areas with this spectrum.
This technology groups several antennas at one cell tower, creating multiple radio links to each of many different users at once.
High-band spectrum is what most people think of when they think of 5G.
Sometimes referred to as mmWave or FR2 in the industry, high-band spectrum enables speeds up in the tens of Gbps range at even lower latency. However, the high-band coverage area is limited, and building and rain penetration is poor.
For mmWave mobile devices to work, both the cell and the mobile device must use new antenna technology capable of dynamically steering and forming the radio beam to and from the cell tower. Steering and forming are done through power modulation and interferometry to and from arrays of tightly packed antenna modules, which are very small since the signal is in the mm wavelength spectrum.
Major telecommunication companies are working tirelessly to overcome these propagation challenges since mmWave is fundamental to achieve 5G speed and latency targets.
As 5G starts rolling out in high-band spectrum, carriers will piggyback off LTE while overlaying the infrastructure to support 5G.
Upgrades will include building small cells — low-power base stations that cover small areas. Building many of these will help expand coverage, particularly that of mmWave, but this will take time, and there’s still no breakthrough for dealing with FR2’s inadequate building penetration.
Preparing for a 5G Future
With commercial 5G networks in full rollout mode, innovative organizations can start building future-proof mobile broadband and IoT solutions designed for this next-generation technology while still meeting today’s consumer demands.
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Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published on 9 May 2019 and has since been updated.