Even in the US, high barriers still exist to mmWave 5G

If we were making an end-of-year league table of the most-hyped topics in the wireless industry in 2018, millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum would come close to the top.

The high frequency spectrum bands certainly hold promise for future 5G use cases that will demand very high data rates. But the fact remains that there will be no official allocations at global level until the World Radio Conference in late 2019 (so no guaranteed global harmonization to encourage a broad ecosystem); technical and cost issues still surround the radios and antennas, particularly in areas like power consumption; and outside the USA, most regulators and operators are still in the mode of tests and trials, and taking a cautious view of near-term deployment.

The US-centric nature of the mobile industry, outside China, means that the USA’s remarkable progress has often been taken as the norm. In the USA, there are actual 5G services running in mmWave, even if these are limited in range and scope; and the FCC has a strong roadmap for allocating the spectrum. Some was already in the market, a relic of the ill-fated LMDS broadband wireless bubble of two decades ago (hence why Verizon and AT&T could move so early). The world’s first 5G-oriented mmWave auction was just held in the USA and the regulator is already discussing (controversial) plans for a new round.

But we must still remember that the bulk of 5G investment in the next few years will go to networks and licences in sub-6 GHz bands, especially mid-band frequencies; and in markets which do not have the particular structure of the USA’s, and where the fixed wireless case may be less clear than it is for Verizon, most operators are struggling to find any near-term application that both requires high frequency, high capacity spectrum, and also promises to be profitable.

However, as an indicator for the future, and a likely second wave of 5G deployments towards the middle of the decade, it is useful to reflect on the recent developments in the mmWave field, in particular, the FCC’s latest moves, and ETSI developments – which are focused on high frequencies, and on the one use case which may benefit from them in the near term, mobile backhaul/fronthaul.