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.