The top five spectrum stories of 2021

2021 was a busy year for the PolicyTracker team. From record-breaking auctions to bitter controversies, there was never a dull moment in the spectrum world. Here are the five key topics we reported on this year.
| Manuel R. Marti

A year of record-breaking spectrum auctions

2021 was the year when North American mobile operators paid a fortune for C-band spectrum.

In February, the US broke the record for the most expensive spectrum auction ever. The carriers paid $81 billion for spectrum at 3700—3980 MHz, much of which will only become available once satellite operators clear the band in 2023.

In August, Canada’s big three nationwide operators paid the equivalent of $2.61/MHz/POP  for the 3450—3650 MHz band. Although the $/MHz/POP price was much higher than in the US, where operators paid an average of $0.94/MHz/POP, total prices were lower due to the shortage of spectrum in Canada and its relatively low population.

In Europe, a record of a different kind was broken when Portugal’s 5G auction lasted almost a year.

High stakes in 6 GHz battle

This year presented a complex and difficult battle for mid-band frequencies that even seasoned insiders struggled to navigate.

An increasing number of countries in the Americas joined the likes of the USBrazilSouth Korea and Saudi Arabia in designating all 1200 MHz of the 6 GHz band for RLANs. Mobile vendors and the GSMA, meanwhile, would not let go easily as they argued that 6 GHz would be a core component of 5G. China also sent a clear message on the country’s stance on this highly controversial band.

The European Union’s final decision on the 6 GHz band was heavily criticised by Wi-Fi advocates and SMEs. Perhaps UK regulator Ofcom has found the magic formula?

6G is years away, but 2021 laid the foundations

This was the year when everyone agreed about another date: 2030. If a generational cycle in mobile phone technology occurs every 10 years (4G in 2010, 5G in 2020) then 2030 will be time for 6G. The search for a clear vision among mobile network operators, vendors, governments, regulators and academics ramped up this year.

There’s also an emerging consensus on what 6G might look like: even faster speeds (of course) but also deeper coverage, meaning a greater role for HAPS and low Earth orbit satellites in particular.

However, what 6G means for spectrum policy is less clear. The assumption is it will use THz frequencies, along with some lower bands and mmWave frequencies. Sharing is undoubtedly part of the solution. For the rest, we have 10 years to work it out.

Interference uncertainty in the C-band

Despite spending big in the country’s C-band auction earlier in the year, AT&T and Verizon were forced to delay their C-band 5G rollout in November due to concerns about interference with aeroplane altimeters.

Although the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) admits there “have not yet been proven reports of harmful interference due to wireless broadband” it was insistent on issuing alarming safety bulletins about the issue. The FCC previously said that the guard requirements were “sufficient” to protect aeronautical services.

The battle between the two federal agencies is likely to move into next year, as the FAA has issued an Airworthiness Directive which bars pilots from using guided and automatic landing systems that are designed to work in poor visibility.

Pushing for “green” spectrum

Sustainability has been a key issue for the telecoms sector for several years, and its importance is only likely to grow next year and into the future.

The chief environmental concern associated with the industry is energy consumption, and an ITU standard already sets sustainability targets. A growing question is whether spectrum policy has an environmental dimension, and regulators are being urged to think about how to control the sector’s carbon emissions.

An EU Radio Spectrum Policy Group report this year highlighted the importance of spectrum policy in managing climate change. It urged EU governments to ensure availability of spectrum as appropriate.

On the operator side, the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance urged the entire value chain—mobile and fixed networks, data centres, user devices and enterprise networks—to align their investments with the ITU’s 1.5° recommendation.•


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