In the final days of 2022, Spain completed its auction of the 26 GHz band. The country was the only EU member state to assign spectrum in the band in the entire year. This probably came as no surprise to the Spanish regulator. Consultation responses ahead of the auction revealed that some mobile operators considered it too early to assign the band.
The regulator went ahead with the auction regardless, probably because it included a promise to do so in its recovery and resilience plan. In the end, all licences were sold at the reserve price, and only a single regional licence was sold.
Since 2018, the 26 GHz band has been designated one of the EU’s “5G pioneer bands”. There is even a legal requirement in the European Electronic Communications Code to assign it if there is demand. Despite this, there is little interest in assigning the band. Only nine out of 27 member states have done so.
This is not a new trend. PolicyTracker has been observing a waning interest in assigning mmWave frequencies for years. Despite this, the mobile industry frequently reaffirms its need for this spectrum.
They say we are still early. An explosive rise in data usage is coming, they argue, which will be difficult to accommodate without mmWave spectrum. Stadiums, train stations and busy urban centres in particular will require these frequencies.
They are right to play a long game. Spectrum policy often moves slowly and it can sometimes take decades for the results of policy decisions to materialise. In the US, the FCC opened up spectrum in the ISM bands in 1985, 15 years before WiFi became mainstream and reaped the full benefit of this decision. Despite regulatory support, ultra-wideband spectrum (UWB) was considered a failed experiment before it found its niche in tracking the precise location of anything from lost keys to world cup footballs.
While the initial hype around mmWave has fizzled out since 2018, the mobile industry says it will eventually make the most of these frequencies. But there are still doubts that data usage will continue to climb exponentially to warrant ever-increasing spectrum requirements. Recent data from analysis firm Tefficient suggests that data growth rates have been slowing and are now in the region of 15—20 per cent a year in many countries.
Predicting the future is hard, and it is entirely possible that data usage rates will skyrocket, as expected by the mobile industry. But even if that’s the case, it is right to question whether, in the meantime, this valuable spectrum should be reserved for mobile operators who currently have little interest in using it.
Recently, the South Korean regulator ran out of patience. It revoked the 28 GHz licences it had auctioned to mobile operators in 2018, citing a failure to hit rollout targets. The regulator also noted that there are no mobile devices available in South Korea that support 28 GHz.
Spectrum is a valuable and limited resource. Regulators should ask themselves if the current approach to mmWave spectrum is the right one. Should national licences be abandoned, considering most deployments are limited to small geographic areas? Perhaps the local licence model used in Germany and Sweden could better support future, as yet unknown use cases? As we enter the fifth year of the 5G generation, regulators must consider their options carefully.