Accelerating Connectivity: Exploring the Global Deployment of 5G mmWave
The race to deploy 5G technology is well underway, with its promise of revolutionising communication networks and paving the way for a hyperconnected future. Within the broader realm of 5G, millimeter wave (5G mmWave) technology stands out as a game-changer, offering unprecedented data speeds and ultra-low latency.
In this feature article, we delve into the global deployment of 5G mmWave, examining its potential, challenges, and the innovative use cases it unlocks.
5G mmWave refers to spectrum bands such as 26GHz and 40GHz. When coupled with additional advancements in coding and antenna techniques, it can carry thousands of times more data than a low-band signal.
In addition, the equipment used for 5G mmWave transmission and reception has a smaller footprint than gear used for lower frequencies in 2G, 3G and 4G.
The expanding number of 5G use cases require a fully coordinated, multi-layer network where 5G mmWave spectrum provides the massive capacity and low latency needed for a full experience.
The mmWave spectrum complements low and mid-band spectrum implementations in dense urban areas. All three are needed to maximise 5G’s potential.
For operators, mmWave provides a pathway towards monetisation of their 5G networks that goes beyond faster speeds on consumer devices as opportunities abound for mmWave-enabled fixed wireless access (FWA) for home broadband services and business use cases.
In addition, its low latency and high data rates make it ideal for provisioning applications and services such as drones, interactive gaming, industrial automation, XR/VR services and applications, connected cars and healthcare.
"The biggest opportunities for mmWave deployments by businesses are [the] logistics and industry [sectors]."
According to the June Ericsson Mobility Report, 5G mobile subscriptions are expected to reach 1.5 billion in 2023. About 40 percent of the service providers that are offering FWA services, which are over 100 in total, are using 5G.
North America and Western Europe have the highest regional adoption with close to 70 percent of FWA service providers offering it over 5G, according to the report.
During the GSMA 5G mmWave Summit at MWC Shanghai 2023 in July, representatives from China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom told attendees they plan to use 5G mmWave to extend and complement the capabilities of their existing 5G networks.
In India, Reliance Jio is targeting 100 million homes for broadband using FWA.
The rollout of 5G mmWave networks in China and India is part of a third wave of deployments that are using the same 26GHz spectrum band that is being harnessed across Asia, Australia,
Europe and Brazil.
Philippe Poggianti, VP of business development at Qualcomm, noted at the Summit the geographic expansion would help 26GHz equipment makers generate economies of scale and lower prices.
Use cases for mmWave in FWA were initially focused on outdoor venues such as sports stadiums, concert venues or other locations with a high-concentration of users in one area. US operator Verizon was an early pioneer for using mmWave, along with C-Band, in National Football League (NFL) stadiums.
During the most recent NFL Super Bowl in February, attendees on Verizon’s 5G Ultrawideband service used 47.8TB of data in and around the stadium, a 57 per cent increase over the previous year. With mmWave and C-Band, the operator provisioned a peak download speed of 4.2 Gb/s and upload speeds of 324 Mb/s.
Enterprises have expressed a keen interest for using 5G mmWave indoors, according to reporting by Mobile World Live. During a round table discussion at MWC23 Barcelona, Juan Cambeiro, manager of 5G customer innovation at Telefonica, stated the biggest opportunities for mmWave deployments by businesses were logistics and industry.
He noted enterprises want to use the spectrum for “control of everything that moves”, including continuous route optimisation of robots in factories using on-board cameras.
Cambeiro added mmWave will enable businesses to remove cabling in factories, while providing more bandwidth and security than Wi-Fi.
He noted mmWave could also be used to provide TV or video services for enterprises, which would eliminate the need for dedicated equipment.
Over time, it could also be used to create a digital twin of a company to support manufacturing processes.
Verizon VP of device technology Brian Mecum said enterprises were “waking up to the notion that managing Wi-Fi is a losing proposition”. He noted it connects enterprises to macro networks to give them more flexibility and security than Wi-Fi, along with voice integration with their existing phone numbers.
With mmWave, service providers can extend their networks with multi-gigabit speeds in urban, suburban and rural locations.
In the US, Verizon is offering FWA-based broadband in urban areas where it’s difficult to deploy new equipment while T-Mobile US is using it to provide service in rural areas. As of Q2 2023, T-Mobile and Verizon have 6.3 million FWA customers between them.
In 2022, fixed wireless services accounted for 90 per cent US of home broadband net additions, according to Leichtman Research Group
“Enterprises are waking up to the notion that managing Wi-Fi is a losing proposition.”
Powering the hyperconnected world
As mmWave becomes more widespread, operators, the GSMA and vendors are collaborating on overcoming some of the deployment challenges. As it operates in high frequency bands, its propagation characteristics are different from those in low-band and mid-band s pectrum, according to a GSMA whitepaper.
Radio signals in the mmWave bands are subject to higher free space loss and higher building penetration loss, among other losses but those losses can be mitigated by deploying antenna arrays.
At mmWave frequencies, the wavelength is much shorter than traditional FR1 bands. Due to the shorter wavelength, a larger number of antenna elements can fit into smaller antenna form factor and with the large number of antenna elements high gain and adjustable beamwidths can be achieved.
The antenna arrays also allow for fast beam steering to improve radio link performance towards a particular area. Smart repeaters can also help to improve coverage cost-effectively.
GSMA noted mmWave propagation fading becomes more serious in urban environments due to building penetration loss, where non-line-of-sight (NLOS) conditions significantly increase the diffraction and reflection losses.
Deployments in indoor environments are especially challenging, as there is no high spot from which to transmit signals, while the dense compartments seriously affect signal spread.
In addition to smart repeaters, there are several technologies that can be used to mitigate these issues including:
- Integrated access and backhaul (IAB) architecture in which a wireless backhaul connection is integrated into the RAN node, removing the need to install a fiber connection to each node
- Reconfigurable Intelligent Surface (RIS), which is a meta-surface that can reflect the radio signal in a programmed direction. This approach could be used for NLOS deployments indoors, or in shopping malls and outdoor dense urban areas
- Electromagnetic Surface (ES) is a carefully-designed passive antenna pattern that can be printed on glass or wallpaper to steer a signal in a specific way. It is typically used indoors
- A smart Distributed Antenna System (DAS), that could be operated by hybrid beamforming.
Reducing power consumption is one of the most critical barriers for application of mmWave technologies on smartphones.
There are several enablers and technologies that can be used to mitigate this issue:
- Discontinuous reception (DRX) technology, so that the device isn’t monitoring DL signals continually,
- Network topology optimisations that can use repeaters and other techniques to reduce the transmission power used by the device
The availability of mmWave enabled devices was also a concern in the early days, but there has been solid growth in the number of affordable mmWave devices coming to the market.
As of July, there are more than 170 5G mmWave devices, including more than 50 smartphones, that are commercially available.
At the Shanghai Summit, Poggianti noted that more than 65 vendors are investing in the development of 5G mmWave devices, underlining the widespread confidence in the technology. In the short-term, the key growth engine for mmWave CPE will be FWA.
“We expect 5G mmWave to become increasingly central to the 5G evolution globally.”
Supporting the widespread deployment of 5G mmWave has become an industry imperative, which has resulted in the GSMA 5G mmWave Accelerator Initiative. The project is led by major organisations across the industry such as Qualcomm, China Unicom, NTT DOCOMO, Telstra, TIM, Deutsche Telekom, ZTE and Ericsson.
According to the accelerator project, high-frequency mmWave spectrum is well suited for short-range, densely populated environments, such as stadiums and campuses. Those areas are increasingly difficult to serve effectively with existing low-band and mid-band spectrum.
A consumer survey by Qualcomm Technologies and the GSMA found that three of the top five pain points around connectivity are caused by crowds and that many respondents would be prepared to pay a small premium to avoid congestion.
5G mmWave addresses connectivity issues in both indoor and venues, as well as in transport hubs and stadiums.
Going forward, 5G mmWave networks can increasingly take advantage of standalone 5G core networks, which can be configured to support slices of connectivity that can be dedicated to specific applications.
At MWC Shanghai 2023, Pau Castells, head of economic analysis at GSMA Intelligence, forecast that an additional 15 countries will allocate mmWave spectrum to 5G in 2023, according to a GSMA summary of the event.
“We expect 5G mmWave to become increasingly central to the 5G evolution globally,” Castells stated.