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It’s the fifth-generation technology. It’s the Elon Muskian saviour of tech. It’s a buzzword. Telecom’s 5G is a curious hybrid of all this, a force that could unlock many future applications. Autonomous cars, internet of things (IoT), 3D videos, or even mission-critical applications like e-health and public safety. Faster, efficient broadband—more bits at lower cost—is the real promise if enough spectrum is available to go around the telcos. Commercial rollouts of 5G are planned only by early 2020, but spectrum allocation, auction, and now augmentation are on every country’s policy table.

On 12 July, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) triggered a tsunami with its unanimous decision to open up C-band, a frequency band hitherto used for satellite communication, to mobile users, particularly future 5G cellular networks. The US regulator believes this is the quickest way to get some spectrum in the hands of wireless operators for the early 5G rollout in 2020.

C-band spectrum technically starts at 3.7 GHz and goes up to 8 GHz. Of this, the band from 3.7 to 4.2 GHz is what the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has harmonised for 5G use worldwide. However, mobile operators are even eyeing the lower C-band, from 3.2 to 3.5 GHz. India’s regulator, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has proposed reserving 3.3 to 4.2 GHz as the primary band for early 5G introductions. A chunk of it, about 200 megahertz (3400-3600 MHz), is today being used for fixed satellite service for broadcasters. These will now be moved to another band to make way for 5G. In a meeting convened earlier this year by the Department of Telecom (DoT), the chairman of the Wireless Planning Coordination (WPC) wing assured the broadcasters and satellite operators that they wouldn’t be adversely affected.

Now with the FCC decision, which many see as a disruptive move in more ways than one, a frequency block as big as 500 MHz is being offered for commercial 5G use in the US. Finally, satellite operators and mobile operators will talk to each other even though broadcasters have known for a while that newer services are coming for their spectrum band. Not just the US, more than half dozen countries are seriously considering vacating spectrum in C-band for 5G cellular uses.

The debate in the US will rage around what all mobile operators will pay for in the transition and how satellite operators will share the booty. In India, the big question arises if it’ll finally consider the Department of Space (DoS) easing its hold on satellite spectrum and letting the Department of Telecom (DoT) allocate it. Will the silent turf war between the two departments come to an end? About time. Spectrum licensing in India is crying out for reform. It’s too complex with onerous clauses, distorted (across bands), and non-transparent when it comes to tracking spectrum usage in real time.

"More spectrum is certainly good for 5G but will cellular companies have the money to buy?


Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

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