The C-Band consists of 500 megahertz of mid-band spectrum between 3.7-4.2 GHz. The FCC will be auctioning off this spectrum in the US beginning in December 2020.

Mobile operators in the US need mid-band spectrum to flesh out their 5G networks. The 5G networks of AT&T and Verizon are dominated by two spectrum types: millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, that has been rolled out in dense urban locations, but which does not propagate cost-effectively to rural areas; and low-band spectrum, which has been rolled out much more broadly throughout the country, but which has not achieved the kinds of speed and latency enhancements required to excite enterprises and developers looking to power new innovative use cases.

T-Mobile inherited 2.5 Ghz mid-band spectrum holdings from Sprint as part of the merger, and has been using it to offer what the operator calls its layer-cake approach of low, mid and high-band spectrum, designed to meet the needs of different target segments and use cases.

No shortage of bidders in C-Band spectrum auction

The CBRS auction in August saw bidding not only from mobile operators but also from cable companies and other wireline providers, as well as utilities and private companies seeking to deploy “Do-It-Yourself” private networks. The C-Band auction, set for December 2020, is expected to draw bids from Verizon, and possibly from AT&T, and is expressly designed to help operators expand their 5G networks.  The FCC will offer 5,684 licenses across 14 unpaired 20 MHz blocks in the 3.7 Ghz band, for a total of 280 MHz.

There are later phases of this auction planned for 2021. 2022 and 2023, which will likely attract other bidders, including T-Mobile, in spite of its significant existing holdings. Cable companies and Dish Networks are other likely bidders. The spectrum band is being “cleared” by moving satellite operators that have been using the entire 500 Mhz band to the upper 200 Mhz of the band and incentivizing them with relocation payments.

The road to significant monetization is likely to be for enterprise applications

The positioning of 5G benefits to the enterprise buyer or developer is all about high speeds, support for ultra low latency, huge capacity to accommodate massive numbers of IoT deployments, and the ability to power the kinds of innovative use cases that we can only dream about today, including truly autonomous vehicles and robots, and remote AR/VR/AI-assisted surgeries. While the 5G launches of the three primary mobile operators are primarily aimed at the consumer, to drive use cases such as enhanced mobile broadband internet access, immersive gaming, access to real-time fan stats and HD feeds at stadiums, and real-time remote healthcare monitoring, the road to significant monetization is likely to be for enterprise applications.

Not only does this require faster and more ubiquitous networks, but also enablers such as the use of edge computing to enhance and optimize processing and analytics of real time video and data feeds. But ultimately, connectivity alone will not be the big differentiator it is today and for the next few years; operators are working on providing a slew of advanced capabilities with the help of strategic alliances to draw businesses to their new networks.

These includes connectivity and application enablement platforms, tiered professional, advisory, and deployment services, managed mobility services for device and life cycle management, enhanced end to end security, custom dashboards and applications, and access to a marketplace of third party applications. Private and hybrid public/private wireless networks for verticals such as manufacturing, retail, oil and gas, mining, ports and transportation hubs are also seen as a significant opportunity for operators.

Developers are key players

As always, the ecosystem of partners, resellers and developers is key to operators’ success in the enterprise, but the operators face the well-founded worry that some of these partners may end up leading the big deals or taking the lion’s share of revenues.

Nokia and Ericsson have been busily testing 5G performance on C-Band spectrum, gearing up for a near future that holds revenue opportunities for them as well as their operator customers/partners. Ericsson reported peak download speeds of 5.4 Gbps in some of these tests, which is much faster than the current generation of early 5G build-outs.

While the C-Band auction is expected to be a big one, and will help the US service providers reach parity across all three spectrum types, the road to monetization is complicated.