5G networks may begin to run out of spectrum capacity within the next five years, according to a new study commissioned by CTIA and done by the Battle Group. Absent any new spectrum, by 2027, the U.S. is expected to have a spectrum deficit of nearly 400 megahertz. In ten years, by 2032, this deficit could more than triple to approximately 1,400 megahertz. To avoid this deficit, work needs to begin now on filling the spectrum pipeline.
The Executive Summary of the report states:
“Mobile data demand is exploding, with aggregate data downloaded quadrupling in the last seven years. New and innovative uses enabled by 5G, as well as the prospect of 6G applications, point towards further increases in expected demand for mobile network capacity. Unfortunately, the U.S. spectrum landscape appears to be stalled, with no clear prospects for significant spectrum reallocations this year and insufficient bands under consideration for reallocation in the coming years. This lack of a spectrum pipeline, coupled with the lapse of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction authority, has raised the prospect of significant capacity constraints in the terrestrial wireless space, and concern that this may limit the U.S.’s ability to be a leader in this area. This paper investigates this capacity constraint and estimates the likely spectrum deficit the U.S. will face over the next decade absent policymakers allocating additional full power, licensed spectrum.”
Source: Battle Group
The Battle Group analysis indicates that additional mobile spectrum allocations are necessary if U.S. wireless networks are to be able to supply enough capacity to meet growing demand. It is infeasible to expect non-spectrum inputs to cover the capacity deficit, even using conservative inputs and under the most optimistic scenarios. With aggressive investment in infrastructure and reasonably expected improvements to spectral efficiency, we estimate that in order to meet demand in five years industry will still require approximately 400 megahertz of spectrum in the next 5 years, and over 1,400 megahertz in ten years. This estimate is normalized to exclusively licensed, wide-area, full-power spectrum, with propagation characteristics of 1-2 GHz. Spectrum with other characteristics would change the analysis—for example, if spectrum were only made available with lower power levels, much more would be required to meet demand.
Recent growth in popularity of fixed wireless access (FWA), which provides home broadband over licensed mobile spectrum, will increase the capacity load on licensed networks. In particular, “Fixed wireless access would likely be the first service to be impacted [by network overloads]. Already today home broadband over 5G is only offered in locations where operators have available capacity in the network to provide sufficient quality of service for a home connection. Without additional spectrum, fixed wireless access will not be able to reach its potential scale, limiting the opportunity for additional competition to be injected into the home broadband market.”
“Our analysis indicates that, given the pace of the demand growth, technological solutions and deploying more cell sites are insufficient to ease the capacity constraint currently facing the US cellular networks,” the report concludes. That conclusion is in stark contrast to FWA capacity assurances from the Verizon and T-Mobile (AT&T has yet to offer 5G FWA). “We’re adding far more capacity to our network than the peak usage increase we’re expecting in the fixed wireless market,” Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg proclaimed earlier this year.
“The report’s findings underscore the growing risk to America’s 5G and innovation leadership,” the CTIA warned, citing the Brattle Group report. “Currently the United States has no plan to allocate more midband spectrum for 5G and Congress allowed the FCC’s ability to auction spectrum for licensed, commercial use, to lapse for the first time in its 30-year history. This inaction in the face of a looming spectrum deficit contrasts with other countries: Today the United States trails other countries in 5G spectrum by 378 megahertz on average – a deficit expected to grow to 518 megahertz in five years.”
“Even accounting for extremely optimistic improvements in spectral efficiency and additional infrastructure deployment, the (Battle Group) analysis makes clear that additional 5G-ready spectrum is the only realistic way to meet projected growth in demand.
“The inability to provide adequate capacity to support projected usage growth would lead to poor customer experience, network overload, and otherwise risk forfeiting U.S. leadership in 5G and beyond,” said Dr. Coleman Bazelon, Principal, The Brattle Group.
“Coleman’s report helps define the risk of continued inaction on spectrum. We need more 5G spectrum to meet increasing data demand, support new innovation and enable the speeds and capacity necessary to fuel future innovation,” said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker. “We now have a target for future action. More full-powered, exclusive-licensed spectrum is key to both our economic and national security. Letting auction authority lapse sent the wrong signal to the rest of the world. We need to restore it quickly with a defined set of new auctions.”
“Our analysis indicates that, given the pace of the demand growth, technological solutions and deploying more cell sites are insufficient to ease the capacity constraint currently facing the U.S. cellular networks. Spectrum availability is the key to solving the capacity shortfall and Congress, the FCC, and other policymakers should work to allocate more spectrum for licensed mobile uses in a timely manner,” said co-author Dr. Paroma Sanyal, Principal, The Brattle Group.
CTIA said that the U.S. now trails other countries in 5G spectrum by 378 megahertz on average—a deficit expected to grow to 518 megahertz in five years. One of CTIA’s top goals this year is to generate support among lawmakers for rules that would take the 3.1-3.45GHz band from the DoD and reallocate it to 5G network operators.
“Spectrum repurposing is a difficult and time-consuming process, and unfortunately there is not an adequate pipeline of spectrum anticipated to meet wireless demand today. Our analysis gives a glimpse of the stunted wireless future if policymakers do not act,” said Dr. Bazelon.
Another mechanism to increase wireless network capacity involves building more cell sites, including small cells. In its report, the Brattle Group estimated a total of 298,001 macro cell sites in the US in 2022 alongside 150,399 small cells. (Those figures don’t quite dovetail with the 209,500 macrocell sites and 452,200 outdoor small cell nodes counted in a study commissioned by the Wireless Infrastructure Association, the main trade association for the US cell tower industry.) Regardless, the Brattle Group predicts those figures will grow to 324,943 macro cell sites and 364,428 small cells by 2027.
But the report argues that cell site growth won’t keep pace with user’s data demands. “Therefore, if historical technology trends hold and forecasted traffic patterns are realized, these solutions are unlikely to be sufficient to meet rapidly growing traffic,” according to the report.
Therefore, the report concludes that the only way to prevent network overloads is to release more licensed spectrum to 5G network operators – which is CTIA’s main political goal.