The 5G Spectrum Ecosystem

Here is something most people don’t think about when using 5G, and that is the spectrum. The spectrum is the key to 5G being successful.

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  • How do we use the spectrum?
  • What spectrum is available?
  • Does the spectrum affect our business model?

Spectrum is going to determine what can be used for each service. We need different spectrum for different purposes. It will serve as part of the 5G ecosystem, but not all the same way.

Spectrum being used for 4G and 5G:

  • 600MHZ is new spectrum and T-Mobile has the most of it. This came from broadcast, specifically TV stations across the USA. however, DISH, Comcast, US Cellular, and some others bought this spectrum as well.
  • 700MHz, 800MHz, 1700MHz and 1900MHz  is common to today’s 3G and 4G world. I see this transitioning to 5G as part of the upgrade roadmap.
  • 2500MHz is almost completely owned by Sprint in the USA. This is TDD and for 3G was a horrible spectrum, but for LTE and 5G, it’s a great spectrum.
  • 24GHz, 28GHz, and 39GHz have been released for 5G and are commonly called mmwave. All TDD and mostly owned by Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

There will be more spectrum but it is being managed by the FCC in the USA.

Spectrum Breakdown

OK, let’s look at the spectrum and break it down. At least at a high level.

Low Band

The 600MHz spectrum appears to be a great band. There is plenty of spectrum there and it may be one of the last bands auctioned off as FDD. It was spectrum migrated from the TV stations over for carrier use. It was originally released as LTE, 4G, spectrum, but it’s going to be used for 5G.

This sounds great, right? If you’re an old school radio guy, sorry, radio person. Then you realize that 600MHz is great for rural coverage. Generally, the lower the frequency the farther it can travel. It covers more real estate.

However, for LTE and 5G you have to be careful. High-speed data works better when the cell coverage is smaller. Data can cause more problems if it’s interfering with itself. While these systems have protection from things like that, like self-interference, you tend to lose spectral efficiency when you build larger cells.

For T-Mobile, I get it. They want to improve their coverage in rural areas. they have to so that they can stop paying roaming charges to the competition, like AT&T. They don’t care about spectral efficiency in the rural area. They just want to cover rural areas.

However, how will this work in urban areas? I think they will have a lot of challenges in getting 5G to be effective in cities. It’s a matter of cell site coverage. If it travels too far, you lose a lot of spectrum reuse.

The other bands being used in 700MHz and 800MHz are being migrated to 4G. I have to admit, they are working very well in rural and suburban markets. It’s reliable and covers well. While there are issues in urban areas, the carrier got it to work.

So, if 700MHz and 800MHz can help, then I believe that the 600MHz spectrum will be a success. It will help solve the coverage issues in rural markets. Urban markets will be a challenge, but good engineering should make it an asset. Spectrum is gold and they take whatever they can get. It’s a mobile solution, so I can’t lose sight of that fact.


This could be from 1GHz to 6GHz. There is a lot of spectrum being used in the 1GHz to 2GHz range, unfortunately, most of it is maxed out. Most of it, in the USA, has been migrated to LTE, but 3G is still on the air. I think this may not be the best path to 5G in the near future, but eventually, it will be on the roadmap. It’s already being used heavily.

That’s why the carriers are going to look at spectrum in 2.5GHz, 3.5GHz, and higher. They see that as the perfect spectrum for 4G and 5G if they can get enough bandwidth.

The 3.5Ghz band is being released by the FCC, at least in part, as lightly licensed. They will auction some of it off to the carriers. The carriers want more and more spectrum and the FCC will bake billions.

Sprint owns the 2.5GHz spectrum and I don’t see them giving it up unless T-Mobile can buy them, then it could happen. T-Mobile would have around 100MHz of contiguous spectrum that they could use for mobile and FWA. Awesome for them. Sprint can do this too if they can execute.

This spectrum has been ideal for all the carriers had to do so far, but it’s been mostly FDD below 2GHz. While that was great for 3G and served a purpose for LTE, it’s not great for 5G, or even LTE where contiguous spectrum is better utilized.

5G NR is a brand new format for radios going forward.

In the unlicensed band, there is the 6GHz spectrum which the FCC said they would open up as license free. they will probably do this unless the carriers fight for it. The carriers have a lot of power with the FCC right now, whatever they want they seem to get. It makes sense, they give the FCC billions for spectrum which pretty much shuts out all small business.


So, that’s why the mmwave is looking so good. You have a limited coverage area. So limited, you’re lucky if you cover over a block in an urban area. Again, the business case for 5G is different from the previous “G”s. You are providing a newer type of service. This could be fixed wireless access, FWA.

Now, suddenly you have a new business model. You see, mmwave will have 50MHz and 100MHz carriers. You can do a lot with 100MHz of contiguous spectrum. It’s all TDD, so you have complete control of the uplink and downlink, not like FDD where both are set in stone.

With the new equipment out there, TDD is more and more efficient. now that we’re all IP networks, data is the key and voice is an app. We no longer need a dedicated data spectrum as we did 10 years ago.

However, mmwave coverage areas are so small that the payback has to come from a new market. That’s why the carriers want to compete with the ISP market. It’s a vertical that they can build to serve the new customers and possibly mobile customers.

Many mobile users rely on their smartphones for more than apps. They may use it as a hotspot so that the laptop can work. I do that all the time and it works great if LTE is working well. I often do it at airports where the Wi-Fi is hit or miss.

To me, mmwave can make a difference in urban areas. The carriers can enhance mobile coverage by offering hotspots while offering internet access to homes and small businesses. It’s a great way to grow new markets now that mobile pricing has flattened out.Small Cell Cover 4

5G Spectrum

The way I see it, all spectrum will eventually move to 5G in about 10 years or so. Right now the carriers are going to concentrate on what will be the biggest short-term payback and provide a solid business case going forward.

Sprint is gambling on the 2.5GHz spectrum. They are investing in massive MIMO so that they can run 4G and 5G from the same active antenna. That will serve them well in the urban areas. They also have 100MHz to 120MHz of the spectrum to play with. That is awesome. They can provide a great service for mobile and fixed users alike. If the 5G format lives up to the hype, they should be able to offer 300 Mbps or more of throughput. It’s a game changer. They also have the ability to make backhaul work from their macro sites by using this technology. Sprint is in the driver’s seat.

T-Mobile has the new 600MHz spectrum which they want to use for 5G. It seems they plan to deploy massive MIMO as well, I would assume on the 600MHz spectrum. It makes sense, right? They could offer LTE and 5G in that spectrum. This is a way for them to get moving in the rural areas, but I wonder how well it will work in urban areas. They will use it but rely on 3.5GHz CBRS bands if the Sprint merger doesn’t happen. I would bet they want to get their hands on that 2.5GHz spectrum so that they can blaze ahead in all markets.


AT&T has been rolling out mmwave. They seem committed to making that 5G rollout happen. They have been upgrading their sites for FirstNet as well. FirstNet will be a boost for them since it adds more spectrum for LTE. They are rolling out 5G at the same time. I can’t wait to see how they bring it all together. I would bet they want to see how it all comes together. They have a lot of spectrum to work with. They should be in good shape moving forward with 5G. they are already releasing 5G to the public. I am not sure what devices they are using.

Verizon already released 5G to some markets. They have been rolling out mmwave to some markets. They seem to be putting a lot of money into mmwave. I think that is their plan. They intend to use 5G in the mmwave and upgrade the rest as they get to it. They seem to have limited spectrum, yet, they have done a great job with concentrating their cells, making them smaller and more efficient. Maybe mmwave is the next step in densification.

Silly Small Business, Spectrum is for Carriers!

The way I see it, if you don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars, you have to accept the leftovers. The carriers have to spend almost a billion dollars before they can deploy one BTS. They can’t sign a lease until they have spectrum. Spectrum is the foundation of any carrier who wants to move forward.

They have to spend all that money before they can sign up one subscriber. Without it, they have nothing to offer.

The FCC brings in hundreds of millions, sometimes billions of dollars for a chunk of air. they used to allow people to buy one license, then they started the auction process. This made it easier because you didn’t need to do any engineering to apply for a license. All you need is money. You pay for a specific market and get to use that spectrum for that chunk of real estate. Straight forward. It took all the RF engineering work out of the licensing process. Now, all you need is a lot of money.

I get it, to do business in the US as a carrier, you need heavy investment. I find it ironic that Sprint and T-Mobile are facing opposition to merge when FCC clearly favors big business. The carriers need to make a lot of money to grow. To make more money they need spectrum. It’s the foundation of all that they have to offer.

Luckily, we have unlicensed and CBRS spectrum.

The unlicensed spectrum has been a boon for Wi-Fi. Everyone has Wi-Fi. Even the carriers use Wi-Fi to offload. Almost any tech device you buy has Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth, all in the same spectrum. Without Wi-Fi, we would not have moved ahead as fast as we did today. Wired connections are limited to the data rooms, cable modems, and back office stuff. Wi-Fi has changed the world and brought wireless to all even before the smartphone did. We all love Wi-Fi.

Now, in the unlicensed spectrum, we can use LTE-U. It’s still trying to gain traction. now with 5G NR, I can see 5G-U happening very soon. Why not, it can use a lot more spectrum more efficiently than Wi-Fi or LTE. I guess it all depends on how much the Wi-Fi users will push back. I don’t know if the resistance will be the same because even the cable companies what to use 5G in their networks. They saw LTE-U as a threat, but they may see 5G as a tool.

CBRS is going to help us take something that a small business can use with a bit more security. It’s helping us move ahead with LTE outside of the carrier realm. We can finally use LTE and hopefully 5G without relying on a carrier. Too me, it’s a step up from Wi-Fi in the way it serves the customer. the latency and allocation should work well. It could also offload, but I see more private networks using this for security and efficiency reasons.

I believe if small businesses and enterprises use the CBRS spectrum, then it will show the FCC that more spectrum should be lightly licensed. I would like to see some mmwave spectrum released to be lightly licensed. That would be very exciting for indoor use specifically.

If we could get a low power indoor mmwave band with 100MHz carriers, then you will see some real innovation. You will also see new vendors and OEMs rise to offer this equipment. Maybe even some disruptors that could bring innovation to this market.

We need to give small business a way to use this and innovate.

Carriers feed the Ecosystem.

When I talk of small business, I don’t want to take spectrum away from the carriers, but I do want to see small business innovate. I think they could offer business cases that we didn’t think of. Maybe they could accelerate AI in a way we didn’t think of. I want to see some thinking outside the box.

However, we need the carriers to feed the ecosystem. They keep all of us working. They pay the bills for so many of us.

It’s all because the wireless systems have solved the need for subscribers. now, everyone has a mobile and almost everyone has a smartphone. This feeds the carriers which lead to the trickle down system.

The carriers provide work for tower climbers, engineers, site acquisition teams, data centers, drive teams, installers, construction crews, and more.

The carriers pay tower companies rent, utilities, employees, contractors, and the FCC.

The carriers provide buy products and software form infrastructure OEMs, US device OEMs, distributors proving mounting hardware, cables, jumpers, antennas, and more.

We need the ecosystem to grow and the carriers need to remain strong, for all of our sakes.

What about indoor coverage?

The one thing I can’t figure out is the indoor piece. When I say indoors, I mean of most small business. Are they all going to rely on CBRS and unlicensed spectrum? It appears so.

The carriers made it clear they are going to be very selective in what they deploy indoors. I think that mmwave would be perfect for indoor work, assuming it’s a safe RF level. That would be the way to go. However, how can that happen if they own all the spectrum?

Will there be a way for them to lease it to someone indoors? I don’t see that happening. Could they offer Femtocells for a price? That I see happening. The backhaul question has to be answered. Will the end user have a cable modem or ISP or will the carriers rely on their own backhaul to connect?

All of this has to be worked out.

It’s going to be more of a problem than you think for several reasons.

  • The carriers will want to own the ISP business so they will want to provide a wireless backhaul. So that means there has to be connectivity that way.
  • If the carriers provide Femtocells, then they need to have a solid distribution and support system. This has been a challenge in the past. Although, T-Mobile and AT&T did this successfully in the past.
  • Connections must be east, plug and play, and work 99% of the time. Can this be done if backhaul is unknown?
  • Will the end user run their apps on this network? Who will manage it?
  • Will the end user manage the network? Put all of their devices, like printer, cameras, and IOT devices on it?

Then again, the carriers could rely on CBRS and unlicensed. This presents problems as well.

  • how will the handoff be done? Will they do it the same as they do now to any Wi-Fi system?
  • will the services be selective or will the apps work no matter what?
  • will the unlicensed spectrum and latency work just as well as licensed?
  • will the backhaul be of equal or better in unlicensed?
  • Will the end user be able to have the security and run their apps on this system?
  • Will the device allow call apps to go through this network, like phone calls and texts?

The indoor coverage issue will need to be looked at. I think the FCC has pushed it off, but I see it being a problem in the future for the business end user. There should be some type of plan laid out.

Will IOT spectrum take off?

When I think of IOT spectrum I think narrowband, but that will change in 5G with network splicing.

Do you wonder, has IOT take off? It already has. It’s just that businesses are not embracing it. Smart cities don’t want to spend the money. Carriers are looking to offer the services on a grand scale. IOT is a key factor in creating several vertical markets.

After all, when we look at IOT today we look at reading meters and controlling sensors. It’s for monitoring open and shut doors, water levels at rivers and levies, heat and cold in a remote room, and many other features.

What if its more of a central nervous system for the city to control its lights, track traffic, report accidents through cars, monitor the gas and water pressure, and measure air quality. all of this can be done today, but it’s not all tied together.

Self-driving cars are here, and they work. They just want to be connected to a network. It doesn’t matter what the network is, they just want to give feedback. How will they connect? Through a network, probably a carrier’s network.

Cars will also talk to each other. After all, the most efficient way to prevent accidents. Don’t have them go through a network, have the communication to each other than alert the network. Everyone is happy.

The day will come when voice will be an app. It is smaller bandwidth so it may become part of an IOT module somewhere.

As far as spectrum goes, will it be carrier spectrum? Do they have narrowband spectrum or will we utilize network splicing to make it happen? Will we start using splicing of the carrier? Yes, of course, we will when it’s released. That would be the best way to go. It would make the spectrum that much more valuable and would eliminate the need for a third-party box.

If you’ve done IOT in Wi-Fi, chances are good you have some interface on the Wi-Fi network to talk to the network while it also talks to the IOT devices using another spectrum. Most of the time that is done to conserve battery life. Many IOT devices are not connected to power. Maybe in your home, you have some that are powered up all the time.

References for Spectrum

To see the spectrum allocations, good luck finding it all on one site, here are some links that may help:


Thank you for your time to learn something new! Let’s use it today.

Be smart, be safe, and pay attention!

See Ya!

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