Tech Talk: The Cross-Industry mmWave Spectrum War

The myriad controversies over spectrum lately should do more than enough to demonstrate the importance of the stuff. The precious licenses for the magnetic waves floating about in the air, generated by special equipment and capable of traveling miles in some cases, are the magic key, so to speak, to improving cellular networks in every way; reach, speed and penetration. Not all spectrum is, of course, created equal. For example, while high-band spectrum is difficult to work with and has to be tweaked for building and ground penetration, it offers the opportunity for phenomenal data speeds in cellular networks. Low-band spectrum, on the other hand, is easy to deploy and requires a minimum amount of fuss, while providing wide coverage with great penetration and somewhat lower speeds, mostly akin to the LTE data networks that most users in the United States may be reading this on. Another type of spectrum is millimeter wave, or mmWave.

mmWave spectrum was played around with in various capacities for a good number of years, but most players who bought some up ended up either selling it or abandoning it. It's a difficult sort of spectrum to work with and, back in the day, it was hard to find many uses for it. It was thought of as mostly unsuitable for data transmission, voice networks, television broadcasts and a number of other things. For the most part, it was used as network backend by some firms and not much else. One particular player, XO Communications, picked up the lion's share of the available mmWave spectrum and kept it. Remember that name, it's going to come up again.

These days, everybody and their brother is scrambling for mmWave spectrum and it has become a high-value, high-stakes commodity. "Wait, what?", you may be thinking, "Didn't that last paragraph just say it was essentially worthless?" The thing is, modern technologies, including new equipment, new network patterns and new deployment tactics, have unlocked the secrets of mmWave spectrum and revealed it to be an insanely versatile and well-suited catalyst for high-speed data over a wide area, with relay frequencies of other spectrums picking up the slack to make up for its inability to go through obstacles all that well. If you're thinking that sounds a lot like an ideal network to build out 5G data networks for cellular carriers, you'd be absolutely correct. If you're thinking it sounds like an ideal futuristic TV network, you would also be correct. If you're saying it sounds like an excellent way to transmit huge volumes of highly encrypted data short distances, such as for business use, you'd also be utterly correct. Thus, mmWave spectrum happens to be at the center of a nationwide courtroom drama of epic proportions.

While a lot of this precious mmWave spectrum is still either out in the wild or owned by the FCC, as we explained in this article about maps published by Allnet, a good amount of it is, as stated above, still owned by XO Communications. The Tampa-based telecommunications firm found basic uses for this spectrum early on and, seeing its true beauty, has become somewhat reluctant to let it go. Here's where the drama comes in; Verizon wants to lay a cool $1.8 billion on the table to scoop up XO's spectrum and fiber holdings. While a deal like this would normally be a simple matter, that's not the case here, considering what's at stake. In essence, the deal would give Verizon the vast majority of the available mmWave spectrum out there, giving them an insanely huge edge in 5G deployment and making it that much harder for their competition to keep up.

Outside of the cellular industry, TV operators who stand to lose a great deal of their spectrum holdings in the upcoming incentive auction are practically salivating over this previously neglected spectrum. Naturally, most of them are biding their time on making a move or announcing any intent to do so; the wild spectrum is mostly going to be up for grabs in future auctions, and a huge amount of it may end up in Verizon's hands. One provider, however, has decided to take a stand. Dish is currently lobbying the FCC to deny the transaction and distribute XO's mmWave holdings instead. This would give all interested parties a basically equal share of the precious 5G juice. Unfazed, Verizon has made no announcements of reconsideration. As if that weren't enough, satellite operators, reeling from a firm warning by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, are saying that cellular operators are being none too cooperative in figuring out how to share mmWave spectrum, as well as the spectrum being auctioned at the FCC's incentive auction. While the FCC has yet to fire back at the wireless industry over these allegations, it seems that it's only a matter of time before this cross-industry squabble turns into all-out war.

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About the Author
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Daniel Fuller

Senior Staff Writer
Daniel has been writing for Android Headlines since 2015, and is one of the site's Senior Staff Writers. He's been living the Android life since 2010, and has been interested in technology of all sorts since childhood. His personal, educational and professional backgrounds in computer science, gaming, literature, and music leave him uniquely equipped to handle a wide range of news topics for the site. These include the likes of machine learning, voice assistants, AI technology development, and hot gaming news in the Android world. Contact him at [email protected]
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