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23 August 2022

New sharing and aggregation tools will help to end spectrum wars at last 

Special Report: Spectrum latest 


The more the world relies on wireless broadband to enable many business and leisure activities, the more spectrum capacity is required to power both licensed and unlicensed networks.  


That simple fact has turned spectrum into the biggest asset that licensed mobile operators have, and often the most important factor that determines the shape of their services and the market positions they can realistically take. In countries where auctions are the main way to allocate licensed spectrum, this has, in turn, driven up the prices paid for spectrum, especially in bands with limited capacity, such as the sub-GHz airwaves.  


India has finally held its first spectrum auction, after delays and disputes caused operator resistance to the high prices that are typically set in that market. Today’s analysis shows why the auction results provide a very good example of how the balance of spectrum holdings an operator owns decides their network and services strategy. Reliance Jio has acquired the 700 MHz licence while its nearest rival Bharti Airtel has rejected this spectrum – the differing approaches will give them different options and restrictions. 


The dash for spectrum does not only create competition between rival operators, but between whole industries. The US regulator, the FCC, has finally won its battle with the automotive industry to reallocate some of the 5.9 GHz band away from intelligent transportation systems (ITS), for unlicensed use, mainly by WiFi (see below). Last year, the long fight with the satellite sector over the C-band spectrum was also finally settled with the holding of the incentive auction, which turned over some satellite bands to 5G. A similar outcome had earlier been achieved in 600 MHz, in a compromise with the broadcasting industry. 


But the FCC still has further battles to wage, including a long-running one with the GPS positioning segment over the spectrum used by satellite/terrestrial operator Ligado (see below). 


Spectrum that is suited to wireless broadband is finite, even if engineering advances are opening up previously unusable bands such as the millimeter wave frequencies. But increasingly, successful use of spectrum, and ensuring sufficient wireless broadband capacity can be enabled, will rely on flexibility. Operators will have a rising number of tools at their disposal to aggregate disparate pieces of spectrum to form large pipes out of previously low-value fragments. There will be increasingly agile ways to share spectrum between different stakeholders and applications and to harness idle channels.  


Operators will aim to have a variety of bands to support different balances between coverage and capacity, as Jio and T-Mobile USA, among others, demonstrate. But increasingly, the notion of perfect or ‘beachfront’ spectrum will give way to an improved ability to make the most of almost any airwaves an operator owns, or can access.