mmWave 5G was the subject of some industry skepticism in its earlier days, particularly around the ability to support mobility use cases and the sheer economics of densification required to provide a workable degree of coverage. mmWave has since been the subject of significant standards-based and technological advancements. Operators are using the high-band spectrum to deliver fixed wireless access and have deployed coverage in venue environments to support new types of immersive experiences, provide capacity offload for mid-band 5G and something that may sound relatively simple but to deliver multi-Gbps download speeds.
In this landscape attention has turned to how can operators monetize mmWave investments given that projected demand for mobile data as a function of the ability for currently deployed bands to support that demand effectively makes mmWave the path forward.
With mmWave, should more cost more?
The in-venue mmWave use case is an interesting one. To that offload point, when you have a high concentration of users, mmWave can provide a huge amount of network capacity so mid-band networks aren’t overloaded and users still have high-quality experiences. Around marquee sporting events like the Super Bowl, the recent F1 U.S. Grand Prix in Miami, and others, mmWave has supported fan experiences like the ability to watch multiple camera angles and access content that supports what’s happening in front of you. But, in terms of mmWave mobility, is using it while you sit in a seat for the duration of an event really a mobility use case? Debatable. So what is the mobility use cases?
Perhaps simplistic but operators could add new service tiers wherein premium plans give the subscriber access to mmWave where available at a cost. For people who don’t see the value, they can just access mid-band and low-band 5G networks. But is that viable today given the relatively limited coverage of mmWave which is concentrated to dense urban cores, transit hubs, business districts and other areas; and don’t forget the trouble with propagation that precludes an outside-in approach to putting mmWave inside buildings.
Ericsson North America’s Ranjeet Bhattacharya, head of radio network architecture and solutions, sees this starting to happen today. Speaking to RCR Wireless News, he said, “You could actually categorize the users based on the spectrum. You could have a premium user and the premium user gets access to all the spectrum bands, including mmWave. Then you could have non-premium users getting access…to basically sub-6 GHz bands. That’s already possible today. It’s being implemented today.” He said the premium users in this context would drive higher ARPU for operators. Then, in that venue scenario, think of the mmWave-backed experiences as an add-on to a ticket price–you pay a certain amount for your set then an additional amount to access additional digital content.
Looking ahead to a world where Extended Reality apps and devices are more robust and more mainstream, Bhattacharya said, “I think this is going to grow even more with the advent of [augmented reality], as we move away from smartphones.”
NI’s Chen Chang, senior director of strategic business development, suggested that the power draw of mmWave could be a near-term impediment to AR glasses capable of supporting high-band spectrum. AR glasses, he said, “have a very strict total power consumption envelops so mmWave, unfortunately, today’s technology is still quite power hungry. That limitation alone is going to limit applicability to that type of device. In the short term, maybe mmWave isn’t necessarily the best for those. That doesn’t mean medium- to long-term it’s not the solution.”
In terms of near-term opportunities, Chen talked through an interesting application involving mmWave and electrical vehicles that more than addressing any sort of power constraints. “With electrical vehicles you certainly have enough battery to power any device. mmWave can actually get more deployment beyond just localized to city centers or stadium-type scenarios.” Given demand and funding discussions around electrical vehicle charging infrastructure, you can see clear parallels between distributed charging infrastructure as a platform for further deployment of mmWave radios.
Chen continued: “I can see EVs essentially becoming the entertainment hub and the cell phones and the users are using that as a hot spot on wheels. You could actually relay and aggregate traffic and with smart caching of content be able to use mmWave at the right hot spot or location to do fast uploading or downloading of content, caching, and then while it’s moving out of mmWave coverage, you still rely on 5G mid-band or low-band as a kind of constant, always-on connection. That combination may provide a much better usage scenario and make it easier for the end consumer to adopt.”
For industrial mmWave, it’s all about the SLAs
For enterprise digital transformation, mmWave has a clear role to play given its ability to support very high throughput speeds and single-digit latencies. But in order to deliver enterprise applications like precision robotics, autonomous guided vehicles and the like, reliability is key. On the technological side, this is being addressed through things like coordinated multi-point to ensure robust connectivity in harsh industrial-type environments where connected objects are in motion and in otherwise challenging RF conditions. In tandem there’s also considerable focus on how operators and their partners will maintain service level agreements to support enterprise needs; this also involves robust pre-deployment test, measurement and optimization.
On test side, EXFO’s Danny Sleiman, 5G business development manager, said, “As soon as we’re getting more and more mission critical with the network and with different applications, what we’re seeing right now is a shift from operators deploying their network where instead of just asking for…information on whoever is installing their site, for example the contractors. They’re asking for a lot more requirements. The requirements go from synchronizing the network, making sure it’s validated at every point of the network, validating the fiber. If I take a step back on fiber testing, how important it is, it might not have been as important when we were talking about lower speed on the fiber. But as you go higher with speed, just a dirty fiber could have an effect. So we’re seeing that from a field installation perspective where the requirements from the operators are getting more and more. We need to deliver a site that’s foolproof.”
After a site is live, Sleiman explained that “ensuring those SLAs, monitoring the network, it’s key. You’re running tests basically in real time, ensuring for example that if you do have an SLA issue, you don’t just wait for the commercial user to call you. You actually inform the user. For medical surgery or connected healthcare, that’s going to be key. It will be important to make sure those SLAs are answered and perfect.”