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The 5G spectrum band is launched today. The auctions promise to herald a new era of cutting-edge telecommunications services. But for India’s telcos, it’s also a moment of reckoning, a delicate balancing act of trapezes. As they use spectrum bands, they will also have long-term business economics in mind. How do they get the frequencies that make a compelling business proposition and not leave a big dent in their already fragile balance sheets? Telcos can initially focus on mid-bands that offer affordable services, and more importantly, they can connect to phones that are already available in the market. The 700 MHz band is the primary 5G band globally, but that may not happen immediately in India as it is unaffordable.
Here’s a preview of how the spectrum battle is likely to play out over the next few days as telcos seek a bang for their mega bucks.
Which bands are used to offer 5G services?
Spectrum is a natural but limited resource that enables communication of different species. The spectrum is divided into frequencies in the lower, middle and high bands. Sub-GHz or lower bands consist of waves below 1000 MHz, which is great for providing voice and data communications over short distances. These bands are typically used by carriers to add capacity to their networks. The mid-bands are between 1 GHz and 6 GHz, which includes the 3.5 GHz band that the Indian government is launching auctions for today. High bands are the bands between 24Ghz and 40Ghz, which includes the 26Ghz band that is also on sale today. Telecom companies require a combination of radio waves in these bands to offer 5G services.
What is the best spectrum band for 5G?
Operators are expected to focus on medium and high-band spectrum to roll out 5G services in India. Telcos are likely to focus on rolling out mid-band networks for the first two to three years as it is comparatively cost-effective and has adequate availability of equipment in the market. The device ecosystem plays a big role in band decisions. Almost every mid to premium segment smartphone launched in India in the last two years will support the 3.3-3.67 GHz band.
Why is the 3.5 GHz band considered the best from a business point of view?
The mid band i.e. 3.3-3.67 GHz provides higher throughput and more capacity compared to the low band. It has a good balance between speed and coverage and supports all three main categories of 5G usage – eMBB (Enhanced Mobile Broadband), mMTC (Massive Machine Type Communication) and uRLLC (Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication). Deploying services only in the 26 GHz band will also be very expensive, as operators will have to invest heavily in small cells due to the shorter range of radio waves in this band. Similarly, the 700 MHz band has been identified globally by the International Telecommunication Union as the primary band for 5G, as it enables high-quality connectivity with better penetration inside buildings and has a longer range than the mid-band. But in India the cost of the band was too high compared to 3.3-3.6 GHz bands.
What are the advantages of spectrum in the 26 GHz band?
This band, also known as the mmWave band, allows for extreme capacity, ultra-high throughput and ultra-low latency, but only over a short distance. The Indian market does not have enough devices supporting this band, but that does not mean that the band is not an essential part of 5G networks. Initially, operators are likely to use this band mainly for enterprise applications, proprietary networks and in selected dense urban areas for hotspots. It may come into the bigger picture later when there are use cases that require this type of speed, supported by device availability. This band also has a huge economic advantage. By purchasing this band, telcos can significantly reduce their spectrum usage fee obligations for their overall spectrum purchases and existing fees for previously purchased airwaves.