5G telecommunication has been hyped for years. It is available in some cities, but the reality is falling well short of expectations. The primary problem are the wavelengths over which 5G signals are sent; most carriers are not using the best frequencies for the technical demands of 5G because they are being used by others. That is changing.
The wireless spectrum refers to the entire range of radio waves, from the lowest radio frequencies to the highest. The Federal Communications Commission regulates who can use which ranges of frequencies and for what purposes to prevent users from interfering with each other’s signals. Mobile networks have traditionally relied mostly on low-band frequencies that cover large distances and travel through walls. But those are now so crowded, and the capacity demands of 5G are so great, that wireless carriers have turned to higher frequencies of the radio spectrum.
Mobile data traffic will skyrocket in the coming years due to a growing appetite for high-quality video streaming. Rising data consumption, the emergence of ‘internet-of-things’ devices, and the forthcoming 5G standard means space within the upper-bands is rapidly becoming more valuable and in demand.
5G is currently available across low and high parts of the wireless spectrum, a less than ideal arrangement that hampers performance. To reach top speeds and deliver both capacity and coverage, wireless carriers must use technology that takes advantage of the mid-band frequencies. However, this spectrum license is held by a group of satellite communication companies serving television and radio broadcasters whose usage of the frequencies has declined over the years.
Imagine the Pony Express had a license to operate on the interstate highway system preventing others from sending packages along the same routes. Meanwhile, other companies developed technology to deliver parcel packages nationwide but were relegated to two-lane highways. If the innovators could only get access to the interstate licenses, consumers could reap the benefits of their advancing technology. Many have argued that the US is behind other countries in deploying 5G because those frequencies have not yet been made available for use here. This fact explains why fewer than 2% of Americans can take advantage of 5G with only 5 million 5G-compatible phones sold.
On December 8, 2020, the FCC initiated a public auction to make available 280 megahertz of prime spectrum coveted by 5G providers. The auction has 57 qualified bidders, including wireless companies Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, as well as a collection of cable, technology, and investment companies. As of this writing, auction bidding levels crossed $70 billion late Christmas week after 45 rounds, exceeding all estimates and setting new records. The auction will wrap up in early January 2020, and winners will be announced later in the month.
Mid-band wireless spectrum will be the cornerstone of robust 5G networks and could determine success or failure for winning bidders and their investors. Losing bidders will be relegated to deliver 5G on wireless spectrum unable to offer speeds demanded by consumers.
*Any reference to a specific company does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell that company.