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Wireless carriers may soon boost speeds with a bunch of free spectrum

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Apple and Samsung already have phones that support the new spectrum

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Wireless carriers are expected to start boosting LTE speeds and augmenting their 5G rollouts later this year with a swath of spectrum that, as of this week, is finally ready for commercial use. Many popular phones — including Apple’s iPhone 11, Samsung’s Galaxy S10, and Google’s Pixel 4 — already support the spectrum, so it’s possible people in the US will start benefiting from the new deployments later this year.

On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission opened the gates to wider usage of the spectrum, which sits around 3.5GHz, by issuing the first approvals to four separate companies to administer its usage and ensure interference is avoided. Once a carrier starts working with one of those four companies, they can broadcast on the new spectrum right away.

That frequency delivers data faster than typical LTE airwaves, and it’s farther-reaching than the much higher speed millimeter wave connections used for 5G’s quickest connections. Essentially, it offers a balance of speed and distance that’s particularly handy for 5G deployment.

Some of the spectrum comes “with virtually no cost associated with it,” says Dave Wright, president of the CBRS Alliance, an industry group focused on putting this spectrum to use for mobile phones. “So I think we’ll see the mobile operators using the spectrum [alongside their existing spectrum] to get increased capacity.”

The FCC has been trying to open up 3.5GHz airwaves since 2015, but it’s taken years to put structure around how it’ll happen. The trouble is, this spectrum is already being used by the US Navy, as well as a small number of companies. Particularly when it comes to the Navy, the FCC doesn’t want any of these new deployments getting in the way.

So the commission spent the last several years setting up a scheme to make it all work. Any company that wants to use the 3.5GHz spectrum will have to work with an approved company, known as a Spectrum Access System administrator, to manage their broadcasts. The administrator will then prioritize the Navy (along with other grandfathered parties) over all other signals. Four companies have been approved to offer administration services so far, with Google and Sony among them.

The FCC intends to auction off about half of the spectrum it’s opening up around 3.5GHz. The other half will be open for anyone to use, with the caveat that they still have to work through an administrator. Licensed users will also be prioritized over non-licensed users as part of the commission’s spectrum sharing scheme.

Despite the fact that they’ll have to share it, wireless carriers are eager to start using the new spectrum. Mostly, that’s because it’s free. Hardware support for this spectrum is also already available thanks to existing deployments in Japan and Europe, according to Wright. So for carriers, it’s likely to be an easy upgrade to their existing tech, without having to spend millions on new spectrum licenses.

Carriers are likely to try out the spectrum for free to see whether they want to pay for licenses later on, says Wright. The FCC is supposed to begin auctioning it off starting in June, and licensed usage is expected later this year. But if carriers can get the performance they need without paying, they may just take it.

“That gives them the opportunity to kick the tires to figure out maybe in certain areas there’s not going to be a tremendous contention for the spectrum,” says Wright, pointing to suburban areas and enterprise users. “So, you know, why would I pay a license for this if you can be working perfectly fine [without it]?”

Light Reading reported last year that Verizon was already installing antennas to broadcast 3.5GHz signals and that it had been pushing smartphone makers to include support. T-Mobile has also spoken of “continued interest” in the spectrum, and AT&T plans to use the spectrum for LTE and later 5G, as well as fixed home broadband connections.

Wireless carriers relying on shared spectrum may seem unusual — most of the LTE signals we get come from airwaves that our phone carrier has an exclusive license to — but it’s already being done. Some of the speed gains seen in later LTE upgrades came from carriers taking advantage of spectrum that’s traditionally used for Wi-Fi. Light Reading reports that Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile all already take advantage of unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum, too.