Millimeter wave spectrum is expected to be critical in deploying the highest speed and lowest latency 5G wireless services, but its prior use in non-cellular applications has made spectrum allocation challenging for many governments. Today, the European Union officially reserved the 26GHz band for 5G service throughout its territories, paving the way for millimeter wave to be used in Europe by the end of next year.

While the U.S. held separate auctions for millimeter wave spectrum in the 24GHz and 28GHz bands, the European Commission is reserving a wide swath of spectrum from 24.25GHz to 27.5GHz for 5G devices — on a non-exclusive basis. The similarity between the U.S. and EU spectrum allocations should enable smartphone makers to easily develop and test globally compatible 5G devices with millimeter wave support.

The European Union has already adopted two “pioneer bands” for 5G, low-frequency 700MHz and midband 3.6GHz, the former offering slower but long-distance wireless signal coverage, while the latter covers shorter distances but is faster. By comparison, the 26GHz band will have the shortest signaling distance but the potential for the fastest speeds, a formula most useful for high-density urban areas and gathering places.

As the EU’s decision comes fairly late in the 5G development process — after initial 5G services have already started to launch or been scheduled for launch across several European countries — the time lines for implementation will result in at least two waves of EU 5G phones: a first wave without millimeter wave hardware and a second wave with it.

The EU is requiring member states to harmonize their laws to permit 5G use of the 26GHz band by December 31, 2020. Initially, it expects the 26GHz spectrum to be used for fixed 5G broadband service, faster mobile 5G, and mixed reality applications, such as virtual and augmented reality content, as well as certain industrial applications. By the time it debuts in the EU, millimeter wave will have had two years of deployment for similar purposes in the United States.