Low Versus High Radio Spectrum

Lower frequency bands are often described as “beach-front property.” Many people believe that radio frequencies below 1 GH are ideal for mobile communications, but while lower frequencies provide some advantages, as the industry increasingly has to deploy capacity-constrained networks, the differences between low and high frequencies become much less significant. In capacity-oriented networks, all spectrum is highly prized and provides almost identical carrying capacity.

Lower frequencies do offer advantages, but my view is that these advantages are often overstated. Most usage of mobile broadband networks will occur within higher population densities in which networks will have to be designed for capacity rather than coverage. In these scenarios, low and high frequencies offer almost equivalent performance.

One advantage of lower frequencies is that the signals have better penetration, meaning they pass through objects such as walls with less attenuation. This effect results in better in-building penetration. Recall old broadcast TV signals that passed through concrete walls to bring “I Love Lucy” to television sets around the country. The primary advantage of lower frequencies, however, is that lower-frequency radio signals propagate farther in the environment. At the lowest end are systems to communicate with submarines operating in the extremely low frequency (ELF) band which ranges from 3 Hz to 300 Hz. Wavelengths at those frequencies are thousands of kilometers long, so antennas, which have to be huge, are a slight challenge.

In contrast, mobile communications systems used globally have frequencies much higher than this, ranging from 450 MHz to 2500 GHz, with most systems in the U.S. operating at either 850 MHz (cellular band) or 1900 MHz (Personal Communications Systems – PCS) band. In trying to cover an area with the minimum number of sites, using 1900 MHz takes somewhere between 2 to 4 times as many sites as 850 MHz. The exact ratio depends on multiple factors such as path loss, the link budget, cell tower height, and the geometry of the area being covered. Lower frequencies, such the 700 MHz band in which LTE is being deployed in the U.S. right now, requires even fewer sites than 850 MHz, though only slightly.

For rolling out a new “greenfield” mobile wireless network, fewer cell sites equates to a lower-cost deployment. For instance, it’s less expensive to roll out a greenfield LTE nationwide network at 700 MHz than to roll out WiMAX at 2.5 GHz. Both use almost identical radio methods, namely orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDA) and 2X2 multiple-input-multiple-output (MIMO) smart antenna systems. The biggest difference is the frequency and the larger number of cell sites required for the higher frequency.

For that reason, a 700 MHz LTE deployment makes a lot of sense as an “underlay” network, a network built for coverage. But as pointed out in many of my papers, including “The Spectrum Imperative: Mobile Broadband Spectrum and its Impacts for U.S. Consumers and the Economy – An Engineering Analysis” (http://www.rysavy.com/Articles/2011_03_Spectrum_Effects.pdf) – even wireless networks that use the most advanced wireless technologies available, such as LTE, have extremely limited capacity. It only takes a handful of users simultaneously streaming video in a coverage area to consume sector capacity. For that reason, operators that have an underlay network will need to add capacity once they start loading their networks with subscribers.

A number of operators are planning to use their AWS licenses at 1.7 GHz (and eventually other frequencies) for exactly this overlay purpose. (Ultimately, cellular and PCS bands will also be refarmed for LTE.) It takes more sites to build out at 1.7 GHz, but the increased number of sites simultaneously translates to much greater capacity. So even if it were to take three times as many sites for 1.7 GHz as for 700 MHz, MHz for MHz, the 1.7 GHz network will have three times as much capacity as the 700 MHz network, and the overall LTE network now has four times the total capacity as it did with just the 700 MHz band. Of course, if an operator built out on higher frequencies, such as 1.7 GHz, 1.9 GHz, or 2.5 GHz in the first place, the operator would have a high capacity network from the beginning. As such, a network build at just higher frequencies would not ultimately cost any more to achieve comparable capacity.

Given that lower frequencies have such good propagation, one might wonder whether it might actually be a liability to use them in denser deployments with smaller cells. In other words, the signal in one cell might keep propagating into neighboring cells and cause excessive interference. Actually, an operator can prevent such excessive propagation by using down-tilt on the base station antennas. Thus the operator could ultimately build a high capacity network using lower frequencies and smaller cells.

The bottom line is that lower frequencies do offer advantages, but my view is that these advantages are often overstated. Most usage of mobile broadband networks will occur within higher population densities in which networks will have to be designed for capacity rather than coverage. In these scenarios, low and high frequencies offer almost equivalent performance.

  • Larry Downes

    Excellent points, Peter. To the credit of the Wireless Bureau, the FCC’s annual Mobile Competition Report likewise does a good job describing the engineering/propagation/tower siting pros and cons of different frequencies.

    Which makes it all the more baffling when the FCC ignores those differences in the intellectually-vacant “spectrum screen” applied to merger review. Sometimes the agency compares apples and oranges, counting spectrum as if each band had the same usefulness and build-out/operations costs. Or, when that doesn’t give them the result they want, they simply leave out other holdings (such as Clearwire’s) altogether.

    Why they need to rely on proxies–and in this instance, such poor proxies–when the real information is readily available makes little sense. It’s almost as if they care more about getting the analysis to yield a pre-determined preferred outcome than to get the right answer. Almost.

  • Congratulation for this smart article: why is this point of view not wide spread ?
    The wide coverage of low frequencies and the downtilt to avoid interference : it sounds completely stupid.
    For my point of view it’s also stupid to switch off digital tv broadcast to make room for telecommunication systems that will be used to watch TV over IP ! We call it in France : giving jam to pigs.
    I have a question : L band (1452 – 1492 MHz) is almost completely free in Europe but nobody cares about this band may be because it is already used in US or it’s a too small portion of spectrum ?

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  • Eddie Ayala

    Great entry! I whish many Telecom CTO and CEO can read this post. RNP & RNO as well as business perpectives must be taken into account to make smart decisions in future mobile networks. Thanks!

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  • Chum

    Awesome piece, thanks 🙂

  • a man

    Great explanation. I found this write up looking for information about a figure I saw in Open Signal. I’m on AT&T and OpenSignal showed that I was on a 700mhz band. This is on a Galaxy S7 Active with the same stuff as all the other S7’s, and a few upgrades. But internally, the hardware/camera is the same.

    So, I was interested to learn about mimo and this 700mhz band. I guess the frequency is why I receive such good data throughout my house, and every Verizon phone that’s entered my house has zero signal. Even my friends’ houses, Verizon never picked up. But, in my area, OUTSIDE of houses, AT&T and Verizon both get signal in all the same places. AT&T is just much, much clearer when talking on the phone, and the data is mcuh faster, and far more consistant and reliable. I always see 4G LTE on my S7 Active, no matter what part of a house I’m in. I can’t wait to check what frequencies I see used in larger cities.

    I live out in a rural area in the South East.

    PS. Please excuse any typos. I decided to use my bluetooth keyboard for this one. I’m going to start using it on forum posts from now on. it’s great, an Anker Ultra Compact BT keyboard. Easy to use and works flawlessly with almost zero lag. Or, at least, the lag isn’t noticeable in any way to affect my typing. Not having a good seating postiion is causing my typos, lol. I just have it on my lap.