Oct 4, 2021
Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.
5G is the wireless innovation platform of this new decade, and it’s poised to create new experiences, transform industries, and enrich lives. As a business leader at Qualcomm Technologies, I am excited by the future of 5G and its potential to bring greater good for our society.
One 5G technology that I am particularly thrilled about is millimeter wave (mmWave), which refers to higher spectrum bands in the range of 24 GHz and beyond. Today, we’re already seeing great commercialization momentum. It is the missing piece of the 5G puzzle and a complementary building block of a high-performance 5G systemcan deliver truly differentiated services, thereby making it an investment that all mobile operators should include as part of their 5G network deployment planning. For the rest of this blog post, let me explain why it’s important to deploy 5G mmWave networks today and in the future.
How mmWave complements 5G network strategies today
Deploying mmWave can help to realize immediate user experience and network efficiency benefits. The extreme bandwidths that mmWave spectrum unlocks can greatly expand network capacity and provide wide support for multi-Gbps speeds (e.g., 19 times faster than sub-6 GHz, and an incredible 38 times faster than LTE1). It can effectively address the rapidly growing mobile data consumption (predicted to increase by ~4.5x from now to 20262) and meet emerging use case requirements like cloud gaming. A recent analysis from Bell Labs Consulting (BLC) revealed that deploying 5G mmWave can realize many financial benefits for mobile operators3, ranging from more efficient fixed/mobile broadband delivery to an expanded market reach. To learn more, watch the webinar recording.
While 5G mmWave’s benefits are clear, mobile operators do have multiple investment priorities when it comes to building a more capable and sustainable 5G network for the future. When we looked closer at the key potential 5G investment areas, in the shorter and longer term, we’ve found that mmWave is inherently synergistic with many of these initiatives. Here are a few areas that caught my eye:
Sub-6 + mmWave = cost-effective capacity boost in dense areas
Today, mobile operators are focused on quickly expanding 5G coverage with wide-area 5G deployments, utilizing sub-6 GHz spectrum such as the new 3.5 GHz band. However, in many cases, this 5G coverage layer simply does not have enough bandwidth to support the growing capacity needed for 5G services. Deploying 5G mmWave in conjunction with sub-6 GHz (using dual connectivity today and carrier aggregation in the future) can cost effectively deliver the extreme capacity required. The BLC study outlined a wide range of outdoor and indoor “hotspot” opportunities, including crowded downtown areas, offices, indoor/outdoor venues, shopping centers, and more. Another recent GSMA Intelligence analysis revealed that in places where capacity needs are high, a 5G system supporting both mmWave and sub-6 GHz has a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than sub-6 GHz alone, delivering savings of up to 35%.
Fixed wireless access (FWA) + mmWave = fiber through the air
Another key mmWave use case today is 5G FWA, which can deliver fiber-like experiences to the homes and more. There are already more than 60 FWA providers in 30+ countries that have launched commercial services. Many of these operators today rely on Qualcomm Fixed Wireless Access Platforms to deliver such FWA services using sub-6 and mmWave spectrum. Not only does 5G FWA greatly improve the delivery and user experience of fixed broadband, it can also bridge the digital divide. In the aforementioned GSMA Intelligence study, it was found that a mmWave-only FWA network can deliver up to 34% savings in TCO versus a 3.5 GHz (sub-6) only network, while deploying FWA in both mid-band for coverage and mmWave for capacity can realize additional benefits of up to 39% savings. The same study shows how 5G mmWave protects an operator’s business case from downlink/uplink ratio sensitivities. Surges in uplink traffic share are dramatically better monetized with 5G mmWave complementing sub-6 – with network TCO savings up to ~60% when uplink reaches 30% of the total FWA traffic compared to the use of sub-6 alone.
Why invest in 5G mmWave now?
As we look forward, 5G mmWave technologies are continuing to evolve. Earlier this year, my colleague Ozge Koymen — the head of 5G mmWave R&D — published a blog post that summarized the rich technology roadmap for 5G mmWave. The enhancements he discusses can bring even better system performance and deployment efficiency to future 3GPP releases, as well as extend 5G mmWave to new deployment models and vertical use cases.
Standalone 5G + mmWave = an enabler for ultra-low latency services
A common shorter-term investment area for mobile operators is the transition to 5G standalone (SA). A 5G SA network can realize many new system benefits, such as greatly reducing latency in the core network as well as supporting 5G network virtualization and slicing to allow for seamless coexistence of diverse services. This is complemented by 5G mmWave’s intrinsic support for ultra-low air interface latency (i.e., 125µs per slot vs. 0.5ms or 1ms for sub-7 GHz), resulting in much lower end-to-end latency (i.e., from core network to device) to support new and enhanced user experiences like virtually lag-less cloud gaming and boundless extended reality (XR).
5G private networks + eURLLC + mmWave evolution = an expanded industrial IoT connectivity platform
Complementing 5G sub-6 GHz, mmWave can also support quality of service levels required for even the most demanding use cases. For example, it can deliver ultra-high reliability — up to 99.9999% with deterministic millisecond-level latency — that many industrial IoT automation use cases require. To prove that a 5G mmWave system can indeed meet these requirements, we recently showcased our end-to-end system simulation of 5G mmWave connecting diverse use cases inside a smart factory, where it supports enhanced mobile broadband (e.g., smartphones, laptops, boundless XR), mission-critical applications (e.g., industrial automation), and lower-complexity IoT devices (e.g., camera sensors). Moreover, many countries are making mmWave spectrum available for localized IoT deployments, such as Japan, Germany, and others. In parallel, we have also conducted multiple field trials to show that 5G mmWave performs well in enterprise and challenging industrial IoT environments.
Open RAN (O-RAN) + mmWave = a more flexible, higher-performance 5G network
Another recent trend is for mobile operators to build a more distributed radio access network (RAN) using a virtualized, open architecture (i.e., O-RAN). Disaggregating the network can improve end-to-end performance as well as provide better deployment flexibility. O-RAN standards include features beneficial to 5G mmWave. While rolling out 5G mmWave with O-RAN can simplify the deployment process, adding 5G mmWave to a low-band or mid-band O-RAN network can substantially improve its overall performance.
For example, the O-RAN architecture improves vendor diversity and scalability for mmWave deployments through standardized disaggregation. The O-RAN midhaul and fronthaul interfaces as shown in the figure below help disaggregate key RAN functions. This O-RAN approach helps to deploy multi-sector mmWave sites with a smaller footprint by relocating latency-tolerant functions to the edge cloud. In addition, there is an opportunity to utilize the virtualized RAN’s common off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware for mobile edge compute (MEC), which can further enhance the flexibility and performance of low-latency mmWave services.
5G mmWave will pave the path to higher spectrum use in the future
As we make progress toward 5G Advanced (i.e., 3GPP Release 18 and beyond), more capacity can be unlocked with the utilization of even higher spectrum bands (e.g., mmWave bands from 71 GHz to ~100 GHz and even sub-terahertz bands above 100 GHz). Recent studies across industry and academia have confirmed that propagation path loss up to around 150GHz is very similar after compensating for the initial 1m loss with directional antennas. Differences across the band in typical air are only about a 1dB/100m, which is insignificant within the range of typical 5G small cells today. We believe deploying 5G mmWave today can prepare us for future wireless networks — it is a necessary steppingstone to 5G Advanced and beyond.
5G mmWave is great, so what?
These are just a few examples of why mmWave is an essential piece of the 5G puzzle and a complementary building block of a high-performance 5G system. Adding mmWave support to any 5G network can futureproof 5G investments. 5G mmWave can immediately lift user satisfaction by offering virtually unlimited capacity and awesome user experiences, and its short investment payback period also makes the decision simple — the time to roll out mmWave is now. As a wireless technology enthusiast and more importantly, a daily 5G end user, I can’t wait for 5G mmWave coverage to become more ubiquitous. That’s why I urge all mobile operators that have yet to take the inevitable step to take a closer look at 5G mmWave’s business case and start deploying now.
To answer your long list of questions on 5G mmWave, like What did it take to mobilize mmWave?, Where are we in the technology cycle?, How does the deployment ROI look like?, What features are supported in the current standards?, and What’s new technologies are coming next?, check out our 5G mmWave technology website.