5G spectrum and frequency bands: What they are and why they matter

Wireless spectrum may sound like a dry topic to some but this explanation of spectrum, and why it’s fundamental to exceptional 5G service, showcases what makes it a hot topic.

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5G Spectrum And Range Of Frequency Bands

Spectrum is part of the backbone of wireless communications—and for something that you can’t see, it can have a huge impact. As Adam Koeppe, Senior Vice President of Technology and Planning at Verizon, said when talking about adding C-Band spectrum, “The more spectrum we open up on our network, the more data can move across our network faster and more efficiently.” In fact, access to more dedicated high-power spectrum can mean faster speeds and a better experience for consumers and businesses alike.

But what do we mean when we talk about spectrum? Here’s what to know—and why you should care.

The science of spectrum

A 30,000-foot view: All wireless communications—whether you’re talking about mobile phones, radio, Wi-Fi, satellite communications or GPS—rely on information transmitted as electromagnetic energy. Electromagnetic energy travels as waves, like ripples across a pond when you drop a stone in the water. And just like ripples on a pond, these waves vary in wavelength, or the distance over which their shapes repeat. They’re on a continuum known as the electromagnetic spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are low-energy, low-frequency waves, with a long wavelength (such as radio waves). On the other end are high-energy, high-frequency waves with a short wavelength, such as X-rays and gamma rays. In between are things like visible light and microwave radiation.

Wireless communications use the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum between the frequencies of 3 kilohertz (kHz) and 300 gigahertz (GHz). Hertz, a measurement of frequency, is the number of waves per second. So a 3 kHz radio wave has 3,000 waves per second.

With those details in mind, here are two important things to know:

  1. Wireless spectrum is a finite resource.

  2. For wireless communications, not all wavelengths and frequency bands on the spectrum offer the same performance.

Understanding the 5G spectrum: What are the different 5G frequency bands?

The radio spectrum is divided into frequency bands, with each allocated by governments for use by various entities, like wireless companies or government agencies. 5G uses various low-band, mid-band and high-band frequencies that differ from previous wireless protocols such as 3G and 4G LTE in order to maximize the potential of this new generation of wireless communication.

Low-band, Frequency: < 1GHz. | Frequency Bands

What is low-band 5G? Low-band 5G utilizes the spectrum below 1 GHz—typically 600 MHz to 1 GHz. Lower frequencies can cover greater distances, so low-band 5G can support coverage over wide areas and in rural or hard-to-reach locations. However, low-band doesn’t have the speed or capacity of higher bands. The performance of low-band 5G is typically similar to 4G LTE.

Mid-band, Frequency: 2GHz–10GHz; Includes C-band.| Frequency Bands

What is mid-band 5G? Mid-band 5G (which includes C-Band) operates today in the 2.4 GHz to 4.2 GHz range between low and high frequency bands, and offers performance characteristics that are also between the two. Mid-band 5G can cover more distance than high-band 5G, and with more speed and capacity than low-band 5G—it’s a bit of a sweet spot with the range and capacity to serve small cities, towns and suburban areas, and both consumers and businesses.

High-band, 24GHz–53GHz; Includes MmWave. | Frequency Bands

What is high-band 5G? High-band 5G typically works in the 24 GHz to 39 GHz range; these frequency bands are also known as millimeter wave (mmWave). Because of the quantity of high band spectrum available, mmWave has breathtaking performance. However, those high-energy waves travel shorter distances. Because of the speed and capacity they support, mmWave frequency bands are currently most often used in dense urban settings or at busy venues.

Access to more spectrum means a better experience

Spectrum licensing in each country is controlled by a governing body. In the U.S., it has been handled by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which work with other agencies to determine how spectrum is allocated. Prior to this year, the FCC held periodic auctions where companies could bid to license specific spectrum frequency bands. (FCC leadership recently appealed to leaders on Capitol Hill to reinstate the agency’s authority to hold spectrum auctions.)

One example of a previous auction is the C-Band spectrum auction that took place in 2021. In that auction, Verizon was able to add an average of 161 MHz of C-Band nationwide. Verizon has an industry-leading spectrum portfolio with spectrum holdings across low-, mid- and high-band spectrum, and is aggressively deploying this spectrum to expand the reach and capabilities of 5G.

Today, Verizon licenses a total of 295 MHz in low- and mid-band spectrum and 1,741 MHz in high-band spectrum. And customers will continue to benefit from this competitive advantage well into the future. In fact, Verizon’s spectrum position is part of the reason why Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband is now available to more than 200 million Americans—that’s two out of every three Americans.

Verizon also knows that using frequency bands efficiently is a key component of success—spectrum is a finite resource—and that matters whether you’re a customer on a mobile phone or a manufacturer looking to implement Internet of Things (IoT) technology to your production line. “We have a long history of efficiently using the assets we have,” Koeppe says. “Spectral efficiency is critical as we scale our network and define new, automated, customized ways for customers to use it.”

And that use will continue to grow: data demands on wireless networks are expected to increase rapidly, with some projecting a need to carry seven times today’s data loads within 5 years. To keep up with that demand, Verizon and other carriers will need access to more 5G-suitable spectrum, especially 5G mid-band spectrum. One recent study concluded that the industry will need at least 1,400 megahertz of additional mid-band spectrum by 2032 to keep up with subscribers’ usage patterns. Given these trends, Verizon believes that policymakers must start now to identify a pipeline of spectrum that can power wireless networks in the future and sustain the reliable performance customers have come to expect.

Verizon is the most reliable 5G network in America.1 See what 5G can do for you.

1. Based on most first place rankings in RootMetrics® 2H 2022 assessments of 125 metros. Experiences may vary. Not an endorsement. Tested with best commercially available smartphones on three national mobile networks across all available network types. Your experiences may vary. RootMetrics rankings are not an endorsement of Verizon.

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