Understanding 5G Spectrum Frequency Bands
By Marco Contento
September 8, 2022
By Marco Contento
September 8, 2022
5G, or “fifth generation” cellular technology, represents a massive leap forward for wireless mobile communications. In terms of data rates, security and latency, 5G far surpasses previous generations of communication platforms:
5G technology promises a cost- and energy-efficient solution with close-to-universal device reach.
Mass quantities of new radio spectrum have been specified to support these capabilities in the 5G standard. This spectrum consists of 5G New Radio (NR) and, notably, millimeter wave (mmWave) bands, known technically as frequency range 2 (FR2). In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened vast bandwidth amounts in high-band spectrum for 5G, as have regulators across many countries.
As a result, the Spectrum Frontiers Proposal (SFP) doubled the amount of mmWave unlicensed spectrum to 14 GHz. This increase created four times the flexible, mobile-use spectrum the FCC had licensed to date.
In March 2018, the European Union (EU) agreed to open the 3.6 and 26 GHz bands by 2020.
5G will operate on three different spectrum bands. This structure may not seem important for the average consumer, but it will have varying effects on everyday use.
Low-band spectrum is “sub” 1 GHz spectrum. U.S carriers primarily use low-band spectrum for 3G and LTE. It provides consumers with a broad coverage area and good building penetration, but data speeds peak around 100 Mbps.
Operators will reclaim this spectrum for 5G in the coming years with concluded 3G sunsets.
According to Digital Trends, T-Mobile is the leading player in the low-band spectrum space. The operator bought a large block of 600 MHz (i.e., Band n71 in 5G) spectrum during FCC auctions in 2017.
Since that purchase, the company has been building its nationwide 5G network on the spectrum block. With the Sprint merger, T-Mobile leveraged the block with other mid- and high-band spectrum to create the most 5G coverage in the U.S.
This spectrum between 1 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.
However, peak speeds can reach as high as 1 Gbps and provide more capacity to the network. 4G and 5G standards use this spectrum. Mid-band spectrum is the foremost 5G coverage and capacity contributor.
To do this, mobile operators apply multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) technology to the 5G deployment. MIMO groups several antennas at one cell tower, creating multiple radio links to each mobile device.
Most people think of high-band spectrum (i.e., mmWave or FR2) when they think of 5G. High-band spectrum enables speeds in the tens of Gbps range at even lower latency. However, the high-band coverage area is limited and has poor building and rain penetration. It’s considered as line-of-sight for practical purposes.
For mmWave mobile devices to work, the cell and the mobile device must use new antenna technology that can dynamically steer and form the radio beam to and from the cell tower. Steering and forming are done through power modulation and interferometry to and from tightly packed antenna module arrays. These modules are small because the signal is in the millimeter wavelength spectrum.
mmWave is fundamental to achieving 5G speed and latency targets. Therefore, major telecommunication companies are developing the technology to address these propagation challenges.
As 5G starts rolling out in high-band spectrum, carriers will piggyback off 5G FR1 and LTE while overlaying the infrastructure to support 5G FR2.
Upgrades will include indoor and urban small cells. Small cells are low-power base stations positioned in high density so that each covers a small area at high speeds. Building many of these small cell clusters will expand coverage, particularly that of mmWave, but this will take time.
Commercial 5G networks are achieving viable coverage for commercial IoT deployments. Innovative solution providers can start building future-proof mobile broadband and IoT-based designs for this next-generation technology while 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.