As wireless technology continues to evolve, 5G holds the promise of a combination of high speeds, low latency and low-power devices. Autonomous vehicles, smart cities, instantaneous video mobile downloads, wearables and augmented reality will undoubtedly evolve with networks that are hundred times faster than what we experience today.
Before gearing up for trials and deployments – seen in markets such as China and Japan – network operators across India will need to take a pragmatic approach to laying the foundation for 5G.
This is why the densification, virtualisation, optimisation and simplification of networks will continue to be at the forefront of operator goals for the coming year. While not new, these are important initiatives as operators maximise their network investments and build the bridge to next-generation technologies. The following are some of the key areas:
Convergence towards new business models, use cases
Network convergence of wireless and wireline is real. Traditional wireline players are coming into wireless, bringing their expertise in fibre connectivity. Many operators are focused on driving fibre deeper into their networks to enable centralised or cloud RAN (C-RAN) architectures and large-scale small cell deployments that bring the fibre hop-off point closer to subscribers.
Multiple service operators (MSOs) and neutral host companies with existing fibre networks are monetising them by selling access for small cell backhaul. Some are even building their own small cell networks and leasing them out to wireless operators. Unlikely partnerships are forming between cable companies, wireless providers and neutral hosts. Market dynamics are in a flux, which, of course, can create anxiety but also points towards new opportunities.
There is, moreover, a convergence of licensed and unlicensed spectrum as new frequencies like 3.5 GHz, one of the global 5G bands, open up. Manufacturers could deploy a private long term evolution (LTE) network in 3.5 GHz to wirelessly control robotics in a factory, or a neutral host could deploy an LTE network in a stadium or shopping mall and sell capacity to service providers. Lots of new business cases and use cases are being talked about in 3.5 GHz.
The road to 5G is paved with LTE
For the traditional cellular market, the goal of enhanced mobile broadband is still being driven by LTE evolution. With carrier aggregation proven and deployed in the field, LTE is reaching very high speeds with 100 Mbps+ downloads and uploads. In fact, Gigabit LTE sites are already appearing. LTE latency is often below 20 milliseconds in many parts of the network. For years to come, LTE will continue to be the foundational and the underpinning network of the “network-of-networks” that 5G promises. Someday, 5G will become the primary macro network technology, but it will likely start as a capacity enhancement technology for demanding areas with a high concentrations of users, and drive new use cases for vertical applications.
5G will certainly be used for the internet of things (IoT) and very low latency applications. These use cases will first appear in applications such as industrial manufacturing with robotic manufacturing coordinated wirelessly with ultra-low latency. Architectural changes in 5G will enable operators to select fronthaul options that optimise for best latency or throughput performance. We will see these coming in stages, with specific use cases based on vertical markets. Cellular mobility, logistics, manufacturing and healthcare will all have their specific requirements.
Real movement to standardise and speed up small cell deployments
Although the whole industry has been talking about this challenge for a while, small cells remain too hard to deploy. Site acquisition is a huge challenge. Zoning processes last for 12 months or more. We expect to see real movement this year onwards on nationwide efforts to standardise and speed up small cell deployments. It is important to agree on a common set of siting rules, nationalise roles and compress timelines for the plotting cycle of new sites.
Everyone is also aware of the challenges of millimeter wave (mmWave) bands. Signal distortion is rampant in the higher frequencies. Fixed wireless access in mmWave is a good case for the use of Massive MIMO and active antennas. Active antennas are emerging for bands above 6 GHz for fixed wireless and low mobility applications. That said, traditional antennas with multiband and beamforming capabilities are still fundamental to wireless networks. This is also a site acquisition issue, more specifically a tower space acquisition issue. Towers are crowded. If operators want to add new spectrum or technologies, they need space. Typically, this means antenna replacements that support existing frequency bands plus add new ones. Any device that goes on a tower today must be fit for multiple purposes and future-ready.
5G – more than a faster 4G network
The potential of 5G is not only about expecting Indian network operators to deliver a faster speed than 4G; it is a combination of evolving technologies. There are many other ongoing technological discussions in the wireless world. Managing the complexities posed by IoT is one such example. It will take a while for 5G to become a generally accepted standard in the marketplace, especially with developing countries like India that are still dependent on 4G.