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Consumers and businesses are both anticipating that 5G mobile networks will be the next frontier for everything from enhanced mobile communications to ultra-reliable low latency IoT, to factory automation, to self-driving cars, to augmented/virtual reality, and beyond. The broad benefits promised by 5G include data transmission that is more efficient with lower latency, improved network reliability and faster download speeds. Carriers are seeking revenue growth, consumers have high hopes that 5G will be transformational in a way that breathes new life into the mobile experience, and businesses are seeking to drive digital transformations that enhance operational efficiency and improve time to market for innovations.

But the truth is 5G is complicated, and it will take time to fully build out the network infrastructure that will provide a consistent experience for consumers and businesses alike. Before the 5G experience can be transformational, mobile carriers and their infrastructure partners will have to invest substantially in completely reimagined networks. Making the right investment decisions will be critical to delivering the promise of the 5G experience.

Bandwidth and Propagation Attributes are Critical Components of the Spectrum Equation

When carriers invest in their networks, one of the first and most important considerations involves determining the optimal spectrum required for their primary use cases. 5G networks can leverage low-, mid- or high-band spectrum. The choice of spectrum dictates the potential coverage and speeds, which then drive the required network infrastructure to support it. Although there are advantages to all three spectrum bands, lower-bandwidth spectrums often appear to be more attractive investments because they require less initial investment than higher-bandwidth spectrums.

Features of Low-band Spectrum – Under 1 GHz:

  • Greater coverage areas because of less atmospheric scatter (lower signal attenuation)
  • Better coverage inside buildings from greater penetration through common vegetation and construction materials
  • As a result, low-band will typically require less infrastructure investment for a given area:
    • Fewer towers/antennae
    • Fewer RAN nodes
    • A less-dense mesh of available fiber
  • Unfortunately, the attainable data transmission speeds are much lower in this band as compared to higher bands

Features of High-band Spectrum, referred to often as “millimeter Wave” – Above 6 GHz:

  • Significantly higher speeds (when 5G carriers claim speeds 100x faster than 4G, they are generally referring to high-band spectrum applications)
  • Smaller coverage areas due to greater atmospheric scatter (greater signal attenuation)
  • As a result, high-band spectrum deployments will typically require more infrastructure investment for a given area:
    • More towers/antennae
    • More RAN nodes or modified RAN architectures (like Centralized RAN, or C-RAN)
    • A more-dense mesh of available fiber
  • Unfortunately, these spectrum wavelengths typically have poor building penetration and foliage can scatter these waves as well

Features of Mid-Band Spectrum – Between 1 GHz and 6GHz:

  • Offers a middle ground when choosing the spectrum band for a specific use case
    • Higher speeds than low-band spectrum
    • Better coverage then high-band spectrum
    • Allows for some building penetration
    • Though, admittedly, this spectrum does not maximize performance for any of speed, coverage or building penetration
  • As a result, mid-band spectrum deployments will typically provide better ROIs from a more moderate infrastructure investment for a given area:
    • Moderate towers/antennae
    • More options for selecting optimal RAN solutions
    • More backhaul options with better ROIs from fiber, microwave or wireless

All carriers will ultimately deploy a mix of the Spectrum bands (low, medium and high) to optimize their networks.

However, while cost is an important factor, meeting or exceeding customer expectations is essential for long-term growth. The promise of 5G includes bandwidth that is up to 100X faster than 4G, lower network latency and improved energy efficiency. Many customers expect to be able to substantially increase their bandwidth and realize the full benefits of the 5G experience as soon as 2021 when they trade in their 2+-year-old mobile devices for new 5G devices. The truth is, aside from technologies that are deployed by mobile carriers to maximize bandwidth for devices (such as MIMO and Beamforming, which we will cover in a future discussion), the speeds attained on 5G at lower-bandwidth spectrums will be only marginally better than current 4G LTE speeds.

T-Mobile has already rolled out a nationwide 600Mhz-based 5G network and has acknowledged that it currently provides little improvement in speed over 4G. So, why invest in a 5G network at all if the user experience will not be materially improved? Because, over time, there will be tower, fiber and network expansion along with mid-band and high-band carrier 5G spectrum deployments, so eventually, there will be no comparison between 4G and 5G — none whatsoever.

The Impact of Spectrum Bandwidth on the 5G Experience

The relationship between spectrum bands and network investments is complicated and location-specific. At first glance, a lower-band spectrum may appear to be a more efficient investment than a higher-band spectrum due to cost and coverage. However, speed and the customer use case must also be considered in the equation. That is, what are the download (or upload) speeds that are required based on your application needs? It turns out that downloading (or uploading) on the highest-bandwidth spectrums can be up to 100 times faster than on the lower-bandwidth spectrums, which could significantly enhance the 5G user experience and possibly be a game changer! When the download and upload speeds are considered, higher-spectrum investments may provide a better return. When the time comes to invest in your network, what impact will your choice of spectrum band have on the 5G user experience you can deliver?

The Northridge Group excels in process and operations transformations, data analytics and customer experience. We have deep domain expertise in telecommunications, healthcare, financial services and government and can guide you through the complexities of the decisions that need to be made to deliver the broad promises of 5G. We would be happy to discuss your company’s mobile network approach and the best ways to optimize your operations. To start the conversation, contact us.

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