Beam-steering the way to real-world mmWave 5G

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Esat Sibay, COO and CFO at ALCAN Systems looks at how to get the most out of millimetre-wave 5G.

The past 12 months have seen the much-anticipated arrival of 5G but, so far, it’s not quite living up to the associated hype. If we take for example the US market, which is making some of the biggest strides in this field, operators have been firmly focused in low band frequencies. While there is still a great deal of value in this iteration of 5G, even T-Mobile has conceded, low band 5G will only be 20% faster than existing 4G LTE networks. Undoubtedly this is a move forward for the industry but, it is not a network technology that is going to see all the promises of 5G, and the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ that now seems synonymous with it, come to fruition. The truth is, to get even close to realising the potential of 5G, operators must enter the unchartered waters of mmWave 5G.

Why mmWave?

mmWave frequencies have long been associated with 5G delivery, but they are not without drawbacks. There are two big problems we encounter when using mmWave frequencies for 5G; poor penetration – a wall, or even a user’s hand can block signal, and a limited range of only 1000ft; that’s 2% of the range of 4G. So, when it comes to designing a commercially viable 5G network that can deal with these restrictions in a real-world environment, mmWave 5G poses a significant challenge for operators.

With such huge issues to navigate, which fuel uncertainty around its suitability, the question is, why bother with mmWave for 5G? The answer is simple, the 20% improvement on 4G that is possible in the low bands isn’t enough. It is unable to support dozens of proposed 5G use cases and puts a ceiling on the return operators will see on 5G investments. However, overcome the problems associated with mmWave and you are left with a technology capable of delivering above and beyond the promises of 5G. Take Telstra, only this week it has announced mmWave 5G trials that could achieve speeds up to 8 times faster than 4G. High-bandwidth, super-speeds, high availability and a significant improvement on 4G make mmWave frequencies ideal. This is of course is why the industry is so keen to tap into their potential– but how?

The boons of beam-steering

One of the key technologies that allow 5G to reach its potential by overcoming the restrictions of mmWave is beam-steering. As the name suggests, it allows a signal to be focused in a particular direction, rather than radiating 120º as it normally would. The signal, which is controlled with Electronically Steerable Antennas (ESAs) enables precise propagation and a faster and more reliable connection than would otherwise be possible. It minimises penetration losses and increases the reach of 5G working in mmWave frequencies.

In principle this sounds like the perfect answer; simply steering around obstacles to enable 5G, but inevitably there is a catch. The catch is that ESAs that so effectively tackle the challenges of mmWave penetration, are typically too high cost to be a realistic option for most operators. Based on existing ESA technology, operators are looking at tens of thousands of dollars per antenna. This may be palatable if only a few per city were required, but given the shorter reach of mmWave frequencies, even when enhanced by beam-steering, it is a technology that must be deployed in high volumes to be effective. Manipulating radiation patterns to navigate the physical limitations of mmWave frequencies is crucial, but operators need to be able to recoup the costs of equipment. So, the next task they face is finding technology to deliver beam-steering at the scale they need and with costings that allow them to have a commercially viable 5G network.

The answer: you could be looking at it

There are many different ways of approaching this. Looking at military solutions for beam-steering, using repeater antennas to expand coverage, but one approach uses technology you are very literally staring at.

Liquid Crystal, the material that is used in most screens across the globe, can be used as a way of developing ultra-low-cost, energy efficient and low-profile beam-steering antennas that offer a potential cure to many of the headaches associated with mmWave 5G.

First explored as part of a research project at Darmstadt University, Liquid Crystal Antennas take what is now an everyday material and evolve its applications. This results in antennas that allow operators to manipulate radiation patterns like any other beam-steering antenna, but the materials used mean the resulting ESA can be built 10 times cheaper than traditional options. Not only this but by using Liquid Crystal to enable beam-steering, the antenna functions with low-power and can be built with a form factor to minimise visibility – think how thin a typical mobile device can be made and this puts it into perspective.

Most technologies that are being developed are being stretched to their physical limitations to work in mmWave frequencies, however a quirk of using Liquid Crystal as the core material for ESAs is performance improves in higher frequencies. This makes it not only a viable solution to 5G stumbling blocks, but it has the potential to thrive in a 6G world.

Conclusion

There is no two ways about it using mmWave frequencies is the only way operators can build a 5G network that lives up to the promises and hype we have seen over the past few years. That said, delivering in these frequencies is a significant challenge which requires operators to completely rethink the architecture of their Radio Access Networks. It needs equipment that does it all – improved RF performance, with a smaller physical footprint, and lower power consumption, all with a reduced cost of ownership.

Operators across the globe have acknowledged that mmWave frequencies must be a key aspect of 5G networks. However, a big question mark still hangs over the best way to achieve this. Regardless of which technologies operators look to, to ensure 5G is a success, it is critical that in striving to achieve mmWave 5G they do not fall into an investment pit of spiralling infrastructure costs that cannot be recouped.

 

Esat Sibay is CFO and COO at ALCAN Systems, a specialist in the development of smart antennas.  He is responsible for financial management, business development, legal and administration at ALCAN and has more than 20 years of experience in finance and strategic consulting with companies such as HSBC, Citigroup and Accenture. He also holds an M.Sc. in Finance from London Business School, a Diploma in Economics from the London School of Economics and a B.Sc. in Industrial Engineering from Bosphorous University.

What’s the point of super-fast 5G when it’s hardly ever available?

New findings from network performance tracker Opensignal reveals that Verizon had by far the fastest 5G speed, but it’s only available to 0.5% of users.

Opensignal took a look at the 5G situation with operators in the US, UK, Australia and South Korea. It found that Verizon is knocking it out of the park, with average 5G download speed of over 500 Megabits per second. The next best was LG U+ in Korea, which only manage around half that rate. The rest of the US operators were miles behind, but all ten of the operators assessed were at least doubling their 4G data rate.

The reason for Verizon’s exceptional numbers is that it’s 5G is all about millimetre wave, so it’s using acres of spectrum, to create a much fatter pipe. Its US competitors, in contrast, are currently using far more limited amounts of low frequency spectrum for their 5G, hence the much lower speeds. Seems like a no-brainer then, to switch to mmWave sharpish, doesn’t it? But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

One of the reasons the mobile industry didn’t move to higher frequencies before 5G is because, frankly, it’s rubbish. Specifically the range and propagation characteristics deteriorate significantly once you get much above 2-3 GHz and the trend continues as you keep going. That’s why, when Opensignal had a look what proportion of subscribers at each operator were able to get hold of 5G, the table was more or less inverted.

“Speed is far from the only important measure of the 5G experience,” said Opensignal’s Ian Fogg, in his accompanying blog. “How much time users are able to enjoy that experience is equally important. There is little point in having the potential to enjoy 5G, if that 5G experience is not often available.” Well, quite.

France pushes forward with trials of much-hyped mmWave airwaves

Much has been spoken about the promise of mmWave spectrum bands, and France has announced 11 trials to separate the wheat from the chaff in 26 GHz.

Launched by Agnès Pannier-Runacher, France’s Secretary of State to the Minister for the Economy and Finance, and Sébastien Soriano, Chair of the Electronic Communications and Postal Regulatory Authority (Arcep), the trials will sweep the country, covering a handy number of different usecases, while also bringing in an attractive number of different technology companies.

It’s a comprehensive approach few other countries could match-up to. Interestingly enough, several of the projects are being led by enterprise companies, or organizations that do not specialise in telecommunications. To some, it might not sound like the most sensible approach, though it will ensure business demands are priority number one; the problem with telcos is that they specialise in telecommunications and very little else.

The first project will be led by Universcience, at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, and will focus on public engagement. The La Cité des sciences et de l’industrie 5G trial platform will showcase use cases to the public, through open events, as well as temporary and permanent exhibitions.

Although many in the general public would claim to have heard of 5G, few will actually understand what it is. Education programmes are critical not only to ensure the public is made aware of progress, but also to encourage the next generation into the STEM subjects. For any nation to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the 5G era, the skills gaps will have to be closed.

The second, at the Vélodrome National, will bring together Nokia, Qualcomm, Airbus and France Television to understand how 5G can aid sports media. Low latency and increased bandwidth will be key topics here, as will the integration of artificial intelligence for operational efficiency and augmented reality to improve consumer experience.

The third trial will pair Bordeaux Métropole, the local authority, with Bouygues Telecom and will aim to capitalise on public lighting networks to deploy new infrastructures.

The Port of Le Havre will lead the fourth trial alongside the Le Havre Seine Métropole urban community, Siemens, EDF and Nokia. This initiative will explore 5G applications in a port and industry-related environments, with use-cases such as operating smart grids and recharging electric vehicles.

At the Nokia Paris-Saclay campus, trials will be conducted in a real-world environment, both indoors and outdoors, thanks to Nokia 5G antennae installed at different heights on the rooftops, and in work areas. This project also includes a start-up incubator programme.

The Paris La Défense planning development agency and its partners have submitted another interesting usecase. With 5G CAPEX budget strained already, the Government department will test the feasibility and viability of owning infrastructure and selling turnkey access to operators. This might erode coverage advantages which some telcos might seek, though in assuming ownership (and the cost) of network deployment, the 5G journey might well be a bit smoother in France.

The seventh trial will pair Bouygues Telecom with France’s national rail company, SNCF, at the Lyon Part-Dieu train station. Tests will focus on consumer applications, such as VR and AR, as well as how transportation companies can make best use of data and connectivity to enhance operations. The eighth trial will also be led by Bouygues Telecom, focusing on industrial IOT in the city of Saint-Priest.

Orange will oversee two trials at part of the wider scheme, with the first taking place in Rennes railway station with SNCF and Nokia. Once again, part of this trial will focus on consumer applications, making waiting a ‘more pleasant experience’, with the rest focusing on industrial applications such as remote maintenance using augmented reality.

The second Orange trial will focus on various 5G use cases in heavily trafficked areas, such as enhanced multimedia experiences for people on the move and cloud gaming. This trial is supposed to be generic, and another opportunity for start-ups to pitch and validate their ideas in a live lab.

“The 26GHz spectrum band will allow us to explore new services based on 5G,” said Mari-Noëlle Jégo-Laveissière, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer of Orange. “We are aiming to set-up experimental platforms that will stimulate collaboration on these new use-cases across all economic sectors.”

With the spectrum licenses live from October 7, the trials are now officially up-and-running. Each of the projects must have a live network operational by January 2021 at the latest and have to make it available to third parties to perform their own 5G trials.

This is perhaps one of the most interesting schemes worldwide not only because of the breadth and depth of the usecases being discussed, but the variety of companies which are being brought into the fray. Although the telco industry does constantly discuss the broadening of the ecosystem, realistically the power resides with a small number of very influential vendors.

This is a complaint which does seem to be attracting more headlines at the moment. If you look at the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) being championed by Facebook, the aim is to commoditise the hardware components in the network, while decoupling them from software. Ultimately, the project is driving towards a more open and accessible ecosystem.

France’s initiative here could have the same impact. By designating enterprise companies and local municipalities as leaders in the projects, instead of the same old telcos and vendors, new ideas and new models have the potential to flourish. This looks like a very positive step forward for the French digital economy.

Russia jumps on the mmWave train

While most of Europe is resisting the temptation of mmWave frequencies, Russia has joined the US in charging forward with the high-speed, low-coverage airwaves.

Joining forces with the Department of Information Technology of Moscow, the four Russian MNOs will test out the airwaves at a pilot site in the city centre. From the Kremlin to the Garden Ring, the aim seems to be to prove the commercial viability of the 28 GHz spectrum band.

“5G development agreements were signed with the four largest mobile network operators in Russia,” said Head of the Department of Information Technologies Eduard Lysenko. “They suggest implementation of the pilot projects aimed at the development of the new digital technologies and communication services in Moscow, that aim to open-up fundamentally new opportunities.

“A higher data transfer rate along with broader bandwidth will encourage the development of the Internet of things, autonomous transport, remote medicine and many other cutting-edge technologies that will make the lives of citizens even more comfortable.”

While mmWave has become a hot-topic over in the US, for a number of differentiating reasons, Europe is yet to genuinely be drawn into the field. Italy might have conducted an auction for certain licences in the mmWave bands, while Three in the UK has amassed a small collection of assets, generally it is an unproven stomping ground.

The conundrum which many telcos will have to consider is the necessary sacrifice when making use of mmWave assets.

What is undeniable is these airwaves will ensure faster download speeds and lower-latency connectivity. However, coverage is a significant sacrifice when discussing mmWave. The higher the frequency, the shorter the range.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why some telcos have chosen to prioritise mid-range frequencies. It is a nice blend of increased speeds and acceptable range, but also allows the MNOs to make use of existing network infrastructure. This is the very challenge which some analysts have pointed to in the US with the current 5G connectivity; you have to be stood in very precise spots to ensure you can make use of the 5G euphoria.

For 5G connectivity to be a consistent, reliable and realistic experience with mmWave, telcos will have to undertake extensive network densification strategies. This will not only present a significant cost, but in certain countries, gaining planning permission or acquiring new sites for mobile infrastructure becomes a bigger issue.

In some markets, the US for example, regulations have been drawn-up to remove barriers when deploying new network infrastructure. Some other markets, are still waiting for regulatory reform to enable these densification plans are accessible and affordable.

That said, it does not appear the Department of Information Technology of Moscow or the telcos are worried about local governments or planning permission restricting the progress of mmWave in Russia.

Virgin Media to take a mmWave approach to ‘full-fibre’

Virgin Media has unveiled the results of a new trial using wireless to deliver fibre broadband to customers in remote locations.

In a small village in the English countryside, Virgin Media has been exploring possibilities of delivering backhaul traffic over the airways. Although this is something which Virgin Media has been doing for years, the difference here seems to be the team is toying around with mmWave as opposed to microwave.

“As we invest to expand our ultrafast network we’re always looking at new, innovative ways to make build more efficient and connect premises that might currently be out of reach,” said Jeanie York, Chief Technology and Information Officer at Virgin Media. “While presently this is a trial, it’s clear that this technology could help to provide more people and businesses with the better broadband they deserve.”

The challenge which seems to be addressed here is combining the complications of deploying infrastructure and the increasing data appetite of the consumer. As you can see below, the trial makes use of mmWave to connect two ‘trunk’ points over 3 kilometres with a 10 Gbps signal. The signal is converted at the cabinet, before being sent through the last-mile on a fibre connection.

Virgin Media

Although this trial only connected 12 homes in the village of Newbury, Virgin Media believes this process could sustainably support delivery of residential services to 500 homes. This assumption also factors in a 40% average annual growth in data consumption. With further upgrades, the radio link could theoretically support a 20Gbps connection, taking the number of homes serviced to 2,000.

The advantage of this approach to delivering broadband is the ability to skip over tricky physical limitations. There are numerous villages which are experiencing poor connections because the vast spend which would have to be made to circumnavigate a valley, rivers or train lines. This approach not only speeds up the deployment, it simplifies it and makes it cheaper.

Looking at the distance between the two ‘trunks’, Virgin Media has said 3km is just about as far as it can go with mmWave. This range takes into account different weather conditions, the trial included some adverse conditions such as 80mph winds and 30mm rainfall, but radios chained together and used back-to-back could increased this coverage and scope of applications.

With alt-nets becoming increasingly common throughout the UK, new ideas to make use of mmWave and alternative technologies will need to be sought. Traditional players will find revenues being gradually eroded if a new vision of connectivity is not acquired. Just look at the challenge CityFibre has been mounting to the status quo as evidence of the threat.

T-Mobile US finally joins the 5G party

After months of bashing and undermining the AT&T and Verizon approach to 5G using mmWave, T-Mobile US has announced its own launch using… mmWave.

T-Mobile US is in a strong position to capitalise on the up-coming 5G euphoria. Not only has it promised to base its proposition on its nationwide 600 MHz spectrum assets, but it is carrying considerable momentum from the last 18-24 months. The Uncarrier marketing strategy has been a welcome disruption in the US and the team is hoovering up subscriptions as a result. 5G presents another excellent opportunity to cause chaos.

Starting in six US cities (Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York) T-Mobile US will begin offering 5G services to the consumer in two days time (June 28).

“5G from T-Mobile is different because we have a very different plan to deliver broad, deep and transformational 5G – to everyone,” said CEO John Legere. “Unlike the other guys, we believe 5G should cover people near and far – especially those in rural America. And we believe 5G should not cost more.”

This is where T-Mobile US could make waves in the 5G pond; it seems Legere is promising access to 5G connectivity without the need for a premium tariff. It isn’t the clearest, but in suggesting “customers won’t pay a dollar more”, T-Mobile US seems to be promising anyone can access 5G connectivity, as long as you have the right phone.

As it stands, the Samsung Galaxy S105G will be the only device available at launch, but this might change over the coming months. We strongly suspect T-Mobile US is in conversations with other brands, and if it isn’t, it should be.

“With this device, customers can supplement their already kick-ass LTE experience with a 5G boost in a few cities now, but if our merger with Sprint is approved, the New T-Mobile will build a 5G network for all … the kind of 5G network America deserves.”

To start with, coverage will be incredibly limited, the firm will only be using the high-speed, short distance mmWave spectrum, but in months to come this will be expanded. T-Mobile US has promised a nationwide rollout in the second-half of the year, which will make use of the much hyped 600 MHz spectrum assets.

As you can see from the following coverage map where you can plug into 5G is incredibly limited, but that doesn’t seem to matter to executives in the telco world. The objective seems to be say you can offer 5G, but worry about coverage and experience later. Having spoken to a few people recently regarding 5G in Chicago, the experience is pretty woeful and much needed network upgrades are needed.

Alas, that does not seem to be a concern. Across the world 5G seems to be turning into somewhat of a gimmick instead of a connectivity solution. Early adopters can proudly proclaim they have 5G, but only if they are standing in the few spots it is available. This is where the T-Mobile US pricing plan comes into play.

This is a smart move from the T-Mobile US executives. They are offering consumers a glimpse into the future, but not charging them for it. It might certainly turn a few heads and steal a few subscriptions. If the objective is to gain customers and keep them, running 5G as a loss-leader for the first couple of months is an interesting approach. Once nationwide 5G coverage is achieved, the tariffs can be addressed, but for the moment this could be a very clever move to lure customers away from the likes of AT&T and Verizon.

No clear winners in the latest US spectrum auction

Millimetre Wave spectrum has been a polarised topic in the US, and now the results are in from the latest auctions, some interesting tales have emerged.

Two spectrum auctions have taken place so far this year in the US, with both results being announced at the same time. $2.7 billion might be a lot to add into the FCC coffers, but it is considerably short of the monstrous amount of cash which was spent ahead of the 3G and 4G connectivity euphoria. Considering the amount of attention which has been given to mmWave, some might have expected this auction to attract more attention.

Strictly speaking, mmWave spectrum should be considered way above what we are talking about here, though the industry seems to have adopted anything above 26 GHz. Here, the two auctions are dealing with assets in the 24 GHz and 28 GHz spectrum bands.

Telco 24 GHz licences Total spend 28 GHz licences Total spend
AT&T 831 $982,468,996 N/A N/A
T-Mobile 1,346 $803,212,025 865 $39,288,450
Starry 104 $48,462,700 N/A N/A
US Cellular 282 $126,567,813 408 $129,404,200
Windstream 116 $20,439,360 106 $6,170,990
Verizon 9 $15,255,000 1,066 $505,733,170

The list of companies who have actually won spectrum assets through the auction is quite extensive, many are regionalised, rural telcos. We’ve only included the big ones here, and some interesting also-rans.

Although there still has been a considerable amount of cash spent during the auction period, the results do seem to imply mmWave might not be as crucial as previously believed. These assets might well be able to transmit huge amounts of data, but shorter ranges in comparison to the low- and mid-band bands, and the risk of signals being easily blocked, perhaps have telco fearing to dig too deep into the pockets.

Starting with Verizon, the telco now owns 65% of the available assets in the 28-31 GHz band. Through this auction and previous acquisitions of XO and Straight Path, Verizon has worked up quite a holding, though considering how much it has been beating its chest in the mmWave debate, it is perhaps surprising it low-balled the 24 GHz auction. Here, the firm only owns 1% of the total assets available.

From T-Mobile US’ perspective, the firm has shored up its spectrum breadth. Previously, the firm had not owned any licenses in the mmWave bands and has been the most critical of the potential of the assets. Spending the most in total across the two auctions, it seems the team is attempting to cover all bases, adding to the 600 MHz assets it has accumulated and plans to launch 5G on later this year.

AT&T’s focus was exclusively on the 24 GHz auction, where it spent the most cash, building out its portfolio in the higher spectrum bands.

Sprint is perhaps the biggest omission from the list, not winning any licenses across the two auctions, though it has previously aired its own criticisms of the potential of mmWave. The firm has started its 5G rollout, primarily using its 2.5 GHz spectrum for the launch. Whether its anonymity in this auction is evidence of its confidence in the success of the T-Mobile US merger we’ll leave you to decide.

There is of course life beyond the four major providers, and there have been some interesting wins across both the auctions.

FWA start-up Starry is an interesting one, winning 104 licenses in the 24 GHz auction. At the Big 5G Event in Denver this year, Starry COO Alex Moulle-Berteaux suggested the business was able to operate at such low prices while scaling in new regions was down to making best use of unlicensed spectrum assets. Spending $48 million this time around suggests a slightly new approach to delivering connectivity for the start-up.

These licences are now owned by Starry in 51 Partial Economic Areas (PEA), suggesting the business could be on the verge of much more aggressive geographical expansion. Details of where in the US Starry has won are not available just yet, but soon enough there will be much more colour on the plans. The assets might be used to shore-up performance in existing markets, or fuel geographical expansion.

US Cellular is another interesting case from the auctions, spending more than $250 million on 690 licenses. The telco currently has a presence in 23 markets across the US, with more than six million subscribers. It certainly isn’t going to challenge on a nationwide scale, however, with a stronger presence in the mmWave segment it could prove to be a worthy pain in the side to the big four telcos.

Windstream is the final ‘also-ran’ which we want to look at here. Spending just over $25 million on 222 licenses across both of the auctions, the team appear to be targeting the emerging FWA segment in some of the regions which are often overlooked in the US.

The firm launched a fixed-wireless access to business customers several years ago, and more recently has added products for consumers. In states such as Nebraska and Iowa, Windstream has pointed out signals can travel further thanks to “fairly flat topology”, while the mmWave assets will help the firm achieve the higher speeds demanded by enterprise and consumers alike.

What is worth noting is this is not the end of the spectrum auction bonanza. Over the next couple of months, the hype will start building for a combined auction in the upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 47 GHz bands.

That said, at the moment, the mmWave euphoria is appearing to be somewhat of a let-down.

5G Fixed Wireless: Many roads….the same destination.

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Els Baert, Director of Marketing and Communications at NetComm takes a look at the potential of 5G Fixed Wireless

5G is finally here and dozens of news stories are being published globally every day about the opportunities, possibilities and challenges this new technology brings – rarely has a technology generated as much interest.

Whilst it is great to see so much excitement surrounding 5G – and there is a lot to be excited about – this level of media coverage can also create problems for the industry, especially when 5G is such an incredibly complicated topic.

One of the biggest issues we face in this regard is the media generated belief that 5G is positioned to deliver mind-blowing speeds by using the large bands of spectrum available in the millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum band.

The truth – as we all know – is somewhat different.

Recently a lot has been written about the performance of mmWave, with one high-profile operator comparing its performance very unfavourably to the performance of 600MHz spectrum in a public demonstration of the technology.

We all knew that mmWave would have its challenges and there were no guarantees on the performance of the technology.

With these latest trials, it’s becoming more and more clear for the industry that considering 5G in mmWave alone, won’t be enough to be successful. 5G is much more than that. mmWave is certainly part of the 5G landscape but it is only one part of a much broader suit of spectrum assets that will be used.

The reality of 5G – especially when we are talking about 5G Fixed Wireless deployment – is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are going to be several different deployment mechanisms for operators in the field.

If we look at the much-vaunted but recently much-maligned millimetre wave spectrum we can see that there are already operators out there delivering 5G Fixed Wireless with this spectrum – but they are doing it using an external antenna and in a topography that suits its usage.

There will doubtless be improvements in millimetre wave usage as we move forward but you can’t change the laws of physics and it will always have its limitations in terms of performance compared to low-range and mid-range spectrum.

That’s why we will see operators operating 5G Fixed Wireless services over a combination of spectrum bands using both the mid-band and mmWave.

The mid-band frequencies have shown that reliable high-speed services can be delivered as they are being deployed in rural areas to connect the even most remote locations. By using this spectrum as a base, operators can guarantee a consistent performance from the technology.

However, these operators can still make very effective usage of mmWave spectrum in certain locations where it’s suitable, this is by no means a zero-sum game.

The mmWave spectrum can be used to top up the speeds offered over the mid-band to allow for peak speeds of the much sought-after gigabits per second.

From a launch perspective, we need to see operators delivering reliable and stable 5G Fixed Wireless services into the marketplace in order to build customer confidence in the technology as early as possible.

The best way to ensure this will be to see operators focus their initial 5G Fixed Wireless launches in the mid-range bands.

It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the coming years but as those 5G media stories keep on piling up in your inbox it’s certainly worth remembering that there will be a multitude of ways for operators to get 5G Fixed Wireless off the ground –  but the really important thing is the quality of the service, not how it is delivered.

Money is piling up in the US 24 GHz auction

Over 30 companies have put more than $560 million in bid money on the table at FCC’s auction for the 24 GHz frequency. And this is only the beginning.

Following the underwhelming auction of the 28 GHz (dubbed Auction 101) spectrum, which only returned $703 million, the new auction of the 24 GHz (dubbed Auction 102) is heating up quickly. The auction started last Thursday and has gone through 11 rounds of the first phase of the auction, or the “clock phase”, when participants bid on a Partial Economic Area (PEA) blocks. By the end of round 11, the gross proceeds have reached a total amount of $563,427,235. There are still two days, or six more rounds to go, before the winners can move to the next phase of the process.

The “assignment phase” will allow the winners from the first phase to bid for specific frequency licence assignments. The total bid value for the 24 GHz frequencies could go up to between $2.4 billion and $5.6 billion, according to the estimate by Brian Goemmer, founder of the spectrum-tracking company AllNet Insights & Analytics, when he spoke to our sister publication Light Reading.

The key difference the has driven up the interest from the bidders for Auction 102 is the locations where the frequencies are made available. While major metropolises like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, were absent from 28 GHz auction, they are all on the current 24 GHz auction together with other major cities that would be the candidates for the 5G services to roll out in the first wave.

Bidders have included AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and more than 30 other companies. The FCC will announce the winners including those from Auction 101 only after both phases of Auction 102 are completed.

In addition to bidding for mmWave frequencies, operators like AT&T are also actively refarming the lower frequency bands in their possession that are used to provide 3G services. AT&T sent a notice to its customers in February that it will stop 3G only SIM activation, urging customers to move to LTE. The company said “we currently plan to end service on our 3G wireless networks in February 2022.” Specifically the company is planning to refarm the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz frequency bands, saying “it may be necessary for us to turn down one band of our owned and operated 3G network, such as 1900 MHz or 850 MHz service”.

Considering the AT&T only switched its 2G networks off at the beginning of 2017, this is a clear sign that the generational transition of mobile telecom services is accelerating. Earlier in the middle of last year, Verizon confirmed that it will shut down its 3G CDMA networks by the end of 2019. Even earlier at the MWC in 2017, T-Mobile’s CTO Neville Ray said the company was looking to sunset both GSM and WCDMA.

Going under the hood of Qualcomm Snapdragon 855: plenty to like

More details of Qualcomm’s first 5G chipset have been released, bringing all-round improvements, and a 5G chipset for PCs was also announced.

On the first day of its annual Snapdragon Technology Summit, Qualcomm announced its 5G chipset for mobile devices, the Snapdragon 855, but released limited specs. On the following two days more details were disclosed. An SoC for 5G-connected PCs, the Snapdragon 8cx was also unveiled.

In addition to the X50 modem for 5G connectivity (on both mmWave and sub-6GHz frequencies) and X24 modem (to provide LTE connectivity), at the centre of the Snapdragon 855 is ARM’s new flagship Cortex A76 CPU, marketed by Qualcomm as Kryo 485. It contains 8 cores with the single core top performance at 2.84 GHz. Qualcomm claims the 855 is 45% faster than its predecessor 845, though it did not specify what exactly this refers to. More importantly for Qualcomm, the top speed is 9% faster than the Kirin 980 from HiSilicon (a Huawei subsidiary), another 7-nanometre implementation of the ARM Cortex A76.

Also included in the 855 is the new Adreno 640 GPU rendering graphics. Qualcomm has focused 855’s marketing messages on gaming performance, and the GPU is at the core to deliver it. Qualcomm claims the new GPU will enable true HDR gaming, as well as support the HDR10+ and Dolby Vision formats. Together with the display IP, the Adreno 640 GPU will support 120fps gaming as well as smooth 8K 360-degree video playback. Another feature highlighted is the support for Physically Based Rendering in graphics, which will help improve VR and AR experience, including more accurate lighting physics and material interactions, for example more life-like surface texture, or material-on-material audio interaction.

The key new feature on Snapdragon’s Hexagon 690 DSP is that it now includes a dedicated Machine Learning (ML) inferencing engine in the new “tensor accelerator”. The Hexagon 690 also doubles the number of HVX vector pipelines over its predecessors the Hexagon 680 and 685, to include four 1024b vector pipelines. The doubled computing power and the dedicated ML engine combined are expected to improve the Snapdragon 855’s AI capability by a big margin.

The integrated new Spectra 380 image signalling processor (ISP) will both improve the Snapdragon’s capability to deepen acceleration and to save power consumption when processing images. Qualcomm believes the new ISP will only consume a quarter of the power as its predecessor for image object classification, object segmentation, depth sensing (at 60 FPS), augmented reality body tracking, and image stabilisation.

On the OEM collaboration side, in addition to Samsung, on day 2 of the event we also saw Pete Lau, the CEO of Chinese smartphone maker OnePlus come to the stage to endorse the new 5G chipset and vow to be the “first to feature” the Snapdragon 855. Separately, the British mobile operator EE announced that it will range a OnePlus 5G smartphone in the first half of 2019.

On the same day, thousands of miles away, more Chinese smartphone OEMs including Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo, and ZTE (in addition to OnePlus) also embraced the new Snapdragon chipset at the China Mobile Global Partner Conference in Guangzhou, southern China. China Mobile will also launch a customer premise equipment (CPE), likely a fixed wireless access modem, using the same platform.

Back in Hawaii, on day 3 of the Snapdragon Tech Summit, Qualcomm launched a new chipset for PC: the Snapdragon 8cx (“c” for computer, “x” for eXtreme). This is Qualcomm’s third iteration of chipset for PC, built on ARM v8.1 (a variant of Cortex A76). Similar to the Snapdragon 855, the 8cx also has the X24 integrated cellular modem with for LTE connectivity, and the X50 modem with 5G connectivity can be paired with it. The CPU also has eight cores, with a top speed of 2.75 GHz. The new Adreno 680 GPU is said to process graphics twice as fast as the GPU in the previous generation ARM for Windows chipset (Snapdragon 850) but 60% more efficient in power consumption.

Perhaps the most meaningful change is its memory architecture. The Snapdragon 8cx will have a 128-bit wide interface, enabling it to provide native support for much more software and applications, including Windows 10 Enterprise and Office 365, which clearly is a sales pitch to the corporate IT departments.

Unlike the OEM support garnered by Snapdragon 855, there was no public endorsement by PC makers yet. Lenovo did come to the stage but was only talking about its Yoga 2-in-1 notebooks that have used earlier generations of Snapdragon chipsets for Windows on ARM. On the other hand, Qualcomm does not position Snapdragon 8cx as a replacement for the 850 but rather as a higher end contemporary, with 850 mainly targeted at a niche consumer market.

In general, this year’s Snapdragon Tech Summit has delivered more step change with the new product launches. More concrete industry support was also on show, indicating that, depending on how fast and extensive 5G is to be rolled out, we may start seeing true 5G smartphones in the first half of next year. We may need to wait a bit longer before a reasonable line-up of always-on 5G connected PCs can hit the market.