Crown Castle operates 40.1k towers, 80k route miles of fiber supporting more than 70k small cells. The company’s infrastructure is entirely based in the United States and it supports all key 5G spectrum bands.
Upcoming spectrum auctions in the United States in 2020 and 2021 will free up more spectrum, particularly mid-band, for 5G. Most notably, are the forthcoming Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and C-band spectrum auctions. Given the carrier’s desire to provide speeds in the gigabits on their wireless 5G network, it requires additional mid-band spectrum, with significant depth, in a clean, unencumbered approach. Mid-band is very relevant spectrum for 5G because it possesses a good balance of propagation characteristics and speed. In turn, carriers will use Crown Castle’s digital infrastructure to deploy this new 5G spectrum.
CBRS – 5G Spectrum
CBRS is a 150 MHz wide broadcast band of the 3.5 GHz band. Of the total, 70 MHz of CBRS is licensed spectrum. Further, the remaining 80 MHz is for general authorized access (GAA), which is unlicensed. Carriers have already started using CBRS spectrum (on 4G/LTE) for Fixed Wireless Access through the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II, which helps connect rural areas to the Internet.
C-band – 5G Spectrum
The C-band auction will begin in December 2020 (concluding 2021) for 280 MHz from the range of 3.7-4.2 GHz spectrum. For carriers, the C-band is an important band to have. This is because there is no other mid-band spectrum available offering the bandwidth of C-band. Additionally, C-band is not spectrum that has been placed in-service in the United States. Further, it is not spectrum that mobile device users are benefitting from currently.
Mid-band has been the focal point for 5G deployments outside of the United States. Specifically, those international spectrum deployments have been made predominantly using similar frequencies to C-band.
Mid-Band Spectrum – An International Perspective
For example, South Korea has proven out the logic behind mid-band spectrum. Indeed, South Korea has achieved a lot of their performance results from 3.4 GHz to 4.0 GHz mid-band spectrum. Globally, carriers who have launched 5G services with mid-band spectrum typically have depth between 80 MHz to 100 MHz of spectrum, in the 3.5 GHz band.
5G enables carriers to start using C-band’s large, 100 MHz channels, as compared to 4G/LTE channels of only 20 MHz. Given the large volume of C-band in the upcoming auction (i.e., 280 MHz), carriers could conceivably acquire a 100 MHz block. Large carrier commitments to C-band will benefit Crown Castle’s digital infrastructure as carriers deploy this new 5G spectrum.
Crown Castle’s Perspective on New 5G Spectrum Bands
Long-term, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will continue making additional spectrum bands available for 5G deployments, similar to CBRS and the C-band. Additional spectrum bands are important, because despite the significant amount of investment that is occurring to densify 5G networks, there is still not enough capacity in the existing spectrum bands to meet the demand that is going to come from both consumer and enterprise use of 5G.
Over the next decade, the FCC will free-up additional spectrum bands and bring it to market. As the auctions for new spectrum bands occur, infrastructure providers, such as Crown Castle, will benefit from their deployment. Both new spectrum band deployments and spectrum that has previously been fallow, which a carrier owns, are opportunities for Crown Castle to win business. Typically, the owner of the spectrum has either an incentive, as mandated by the Federal Communications Commission to deploy the spectrum, and/or has a business interest and economic desire to deploy the spectrum in a timely manner.