While major carriers such as Verizon flaunt their developments in millimeter-wave (mmWave)-based 5G, the technology is still in its early stages of commercial deployment. OEMs and tech industry folk are generally accustomed to tempered expectations, but this cannot be said for everyone.1 When 5G New Radio (NR) comes to the mass market, consumers have high expectations—they expect easy installation and a seamless user experience.
However, a multitude of factors will determine how we get to that state. What are the obstacles to overcome before reality meets consumer expectations? Given the challenges of delivering mmWave coverage in crowded environments, how can operators use this technology to deliver full (optimal) bandwidth?
To understand the challenges of mmWave technology and how to maximize its potential, it’s important to know what mmWave innovations provide. Millimeter waves are wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum between 30 GHz and 300 GHz, allowing for high frequencies over narrow wavelengths.6 The more distinct mmWave bands are made standardized, the more capabilities and breadth 5G NR will have in public spaces.
Currently, 28-, 37-, 39-, and 47-GHz bands are licensed by the FCC for use. From there, it’s up to operators to propose use cases to fit the new band frameworks.3 Verizon and AT&T have recently dramatically increased their speed of bringing Fixed Wireless Access 5G NR to the United States, implementing hotspot-based coverage, but this is far from “true” 5G.4
To license applications with the FCC for new uses of 5G NR mmWave bands, OEMs of components, antennas and sensors will have to craft designs for myriad applications and device form factors. In this process, they must consider the challenges and barriers in the way of adoption.
Challenges Associated with mmWave
Signal degradation is one of the top challenges associated with 5G NR mmWave coverage rollout, with environmental obstacles hindering 5G signal spread. Many of these obstacles have been addressed or are inconsequential for existing 4G networks. For example, the average length of a city block in Manhattan is about 900 feet. The high density of bodies, structures, and conductors already stagger signals in a large city. 5G mmWave link budget can cause extra losses due to rain fade, shadowing loss, foliage, atmosphere absorption, humidity, and Fresnel blockage.
As a result, these signals will only be able to reach a few kilometers due to environmental hazards and factors.2 This suggests that a mobile 5G small cell may need to be deployed on every city block in New York City, to properly address the obstacles as well as the usage demands of a metropolis.
To deliver full-bandwidth 5G NR using mmWave technology, engineers need to optimize antennas, components, power supplies, and microprocessors associated with small-cell distribution. Increased deployment of mmWave small cells will fill in major coverage gaps, bringing more intelligence to the network edge. This will enable the collection of more information about neighborhoods and the environment, and how users are moving throughout these spaces. With artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning analyzing the data from these networks, operators will be able to make predictions and improvements to their coverage over time. These will allow 5G NR networks to become increasingly reliable over their lifespans.
5G Consumer Expectations vs. Reality
The general expectation is that 5G will deliver speeds faster than current 4G speeds, and data use is a key driver for the demand for speed. The consumer expected timeline for 5G ranges from one to two years away. While the promise of 5G speeds inevitably evokes a positive emotion from consumers, the applications for which these speeds can apply are still a bit far off.
Service providers are actively testing what technologies will make up 5G. While AT&T and Verizon have their hotspot-based services available in some cities, the official rollout of 5G to next-gen devices will likely not occur until the 2020s. The high cost of a 5G rollout will make its implementation gradual, being introduced procedurally to cities and regions a few at a time.
In terms of OEMs’ progress, Qualcomm recently released its first 5G mmWave modules. Given their capabilities for beamforming, beamsteering, and beam tracking, these should allow for more direct lines of service from 5G small cells.5 By becoming a standard in 5G mmWave devices, beamforming alleviates some of the symptoms of signal degradation by creating a direct back-and-forth exchange between devices and nearby towers. This antiquates the age-old wireless standard of projecting a radius of coverage. These antenna-to-antenna innovations and evolutions will provide an increasingly simplified user experience with 5G over time. For now, optimizing RF front-end components will be crucial in the near future to quicken these devices’ paths to market.
Advances in mmWaves will lead the way in creating a 5G NR network that matches both industry and consumer expectations. The technology will inevitably create a 5G network that can support data-intensive devices such as connected and autonomous cars, AR, VR, connected medical devices, smart-city IoT sensors for security and environmental monitoring, and much more.
Beamforming, increased small-cell distribution, and other stability precautions should ensure that connections will be consistently maintained—especially for high-stakes devices such as IoT medical monitors. Data collected through new networks will allow for carriers and operators to instantly troubleshoot connectivity issues. The most demanding downloads and consumer tasks will also become lighter lifts, increasing download speeds up to 1,000 times faster than current 4G LTE.
Furthermore, consumer devices will benefit from miniaturized RF components that allow for device form factors in line with expectations. Optimized RF modules will enable higher bandwidth to be accessed at lower battery consumption. Most of all, the infrastructure necessary to complete the interlinked web of devices in 5G networks will increasingly streamline the experience. Mass adoption of 5G will occur when these pieces begin falling into place.
Rich Fry is Director of ICT Sales at TDK Corporation of America.