The spectrum situation for mobile services in the US has always been different from much of the rest of the world. More often than not, US network operators have to cobble together 5 and 10 MHz chunks of spectrum for their customers while in the rest of the world, aggregating 20 MHz channels is the norm rather than the exception. For 5G, the US again took a different path with mixed results so far. However, it now seems to be partly changed to match the rest of the world.
3.5 GHz Pioneer Band Spectrum
In Europe and Asia, all network operators that have launched 5G so far have done so in more or less massive chunks of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz that they had recently bought. Bandwidths of 80-100 MHz make sense here as otherwise the difference to current 4G LTE networks is too little to show a benefit and a real improvement. So in Europe and Asia, a total of 300-400 MHz have been given out to network operators depending on the country and circumstances.
mmWave in the US
In the US the main focus for 5G has been on mmWave in the double GHz range so far with significantly different propagation characteristics, especially when it comes to range. It looks like deployment in practice is rather challenging, one doesn’t see a lot of positive real live reports so far. The only exception is Sprint, who have rolled out their 5G network in the 2.5 GHz range where they have tons of spectrum. Much better for range and coverage if they can aggregate enough. The details of this are for a different post.
But what US network operators (except Sprint) were lacking so far was additional sub-6 GHz spectrum in massive quantities. 5G in 10 MHz of spectrum in the 600 MHz range does not count! It seems that reality is slowly leaking through, however, and, according to this post, the FCC is now proposing an auction of 3.5 GHz spectrum in mid-2020. But instead of 300-400 MHz like in the EU and Asia, they will only put 150 MHz on the block (3550 – 3700 MHz). It’s better than nothing but even in the best case scenario with only 2 operators bidding, each will ‘only’ get 70 MHz. Compared to the 5 to 10 MHz chunks used today, that’s much better, but compared to the rest of the world, 150 MHz of additional spectrum is not very much.
It will be interesting to see how this develops. At least this ‘new’ band is a subset of the larger band n78 used in Europe and Asia today so no new hardware will be needed in devices to support such deployments in the US.