I had a front row seat as the CTO of Nokia Networks when the 4G revolution unfolded. As many nations struggled to justify the deployment of yet another mobile network, the United States acted swiftly to take the lead. Motivated operators, hungry customers, innovative application designers, clever device manufacturers, and well-informed regulators worked hand-in-hand to create a new trillion-dollar market and an ecosystem that remains the envy of the world. Residing in Europe at the time, I helped to enable American 4G innovation even as I observed firsthand Europe’s stagnation around the lead it had developed in 3G, leading to slow 4G deployment and massive lost economic opportunity.
While the US got 4G right, China has taken the lead in 5G. Companies there are deploying 5G rapidly to develop a large internal market and expand their home-grown technology beyond their own borders. Their pace has only increased during the pandemic. China is now firing on all cylinders while the US is stuck in internal struggles. US operators face heavy regulatory obstacles, while China has used it government’s might to clear red-tape for a national 5G project that it deems a top priority. By the end of 2019, China had more than 150,000 5G base stations (in contrast, the US had about 10,000), and by end of this year China will have more than 150 million 5G users. For years now, China has focused on rapidly deploying mid-band spectrum allowing all three of its large carriers to deliver 5G, while the US remains bogged down with only gradual progress. Given the financial might of the Chinese state, its close relationship with both vendors and operators, and its ability to act with little restraint, it is no surprise that many consider the 5G race to be over. Fortunately, 5G is not a sprint and there is still a good chance the US can win if we act swiftly and smartly—which is what the FCC under Chairman Pai is doing; most recently with its 5-0 decision in favor of the “Ligado” L-Band proposal.
Deploying a national 5G network requires suitable spectrum to be allocated. Recently, the FCC took a giant step towards making that spectrum available. The Commissioners, by a unanimous bipartisan vote, approved the use of the L-band spectrum for terrestrial applications. This decision is based on science and facts and enables the US to innovatively use this spectrum to create a national 5G network before the POTUS mandate of 2024. With innovation and speed of deployment as our top network design criteria, we can now win the 5G race. Knowing how time consuming the physical and regulatory aspects of building cell towers and sites can be (requiring extensive zoning and permitting), L-Band paired with C-Band will allow us to design a network that minimizes those requirements while providing the necessary 5G capacity and coverage.
Because users “pull” more data down to their various devices than the devices typically “push” to the network, we can take advantage of decoupling the uplink and downlink. In a C+L configuration (using supplemental uplink/SUL) a 5G provider can use a 2:1 C-band to L-Band ratio—so in the case of C+L, that would be around 60MHZ of C-Band and 25-30MHz of L-Band. Amazingly, due to the propagation characteristics of each, the coupling of C+L bands yields a network grid remarkably similar to the existing LTE grid, only with a powerful 5G characteristic boost. In other words, we get the required nationwide coverage and capacity for full functioning 5G, and the new exciting characteristics that come with it (100x faster speeds and ultra-low latency).
Further, C+L helps to diminish the digital divide by allowing for faster time to deployment in rural areas. This solution will increase the C-Band-only coverage radius by 5 times and reduce the number of sites by a factor of 5 (we estimate that a C-Band only solution will need around 400,000 sites whereas a network based on C+L will require around 80,000 sites, most of which are already built). This will accelerate the deployment of 5G by many years, saving billions in the cost of creating the network and in operational costs each year. In short, the innovative use of L-Band spectrum provides the opportunity to ensure America’s 5G superiority, reduce the serious consequences of Chinese 5G dominance and, over time, provide an alternative to Huawei globally. We are encouraged by studies from reputable vendors such as Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung (Teleworld) that validate our assumptions.
At Nokia it was my job to solve complex problems so that networks could be built, deployed, and used to create jobs and improve lives. Today, most critical to American competitiveness in 5G is minimizing the time it takes to deploy a true 5G network nationally. I commend the FCC under Chairman Pai which over the last three years has overcome difficult challenges to help put us in a position to truly compete with China in 5G.
4G changed the world, strengthening America’s economy and technological leadership in the process. 5G can do the same, but only if we commit to making this is a top national priority across our public and private sectors. I am committed to helping achieve victory in 5G through a practical solution—the spectrum innovation of L+C—which is based on sound physics and solid engineering principles.
Hossein Moiin is the former CTO of Nokia.