2017 is shaping up to be a year where we will see more new things out of wireless networks than we have in some time. Some of this will be in the form of select market trials while, in other cases, these will be new services offered by cellular operators and even some wireless upstarts. There are four themes to this: the first commercial 5G trials, centered around fixed wireless access; testing higher parts of the spectrum band to deliver wireless service; new techniques to deliver faster services and increased capacity, such as leveraging power lines and the unlicensed bands; and new types of networks or approaches, such as LTE-Unlicensed, 3.5 GHz ‘shared spectrum’ services, the FirstNet public safety network, and IoT-centric networks using LTE.
We are still a good two years away from the official 3GPP standard being released for 5G, although there will be some steps along the way. Even so, Verizon and AT&T have both announced they will conduct 5G trials this year in several cities. Mainly, they are testing 5G for fixed wireless access, as a potential broadband alternative in markets where they don’t currently offer broadband. The other important aspect is the operators are testing millimeter wave spectrum for 5G – that is, higher spectrum bands that can deliver ultra-fast speeds but have more challenging propagation characteristics, such as requiring line-of-sight.
These 5G trials are not restricted to the cellular operators. For example, Starry, founded by Aereo CEO Chet Kanoja, plans on testing broadband via fixed wireless access using the 28 GHz band in Boston and several other cities this year.
Keep in mind the difference between ‘real 5G’ and ‘marketing 5G’, or pre-5G. These initial tests might deliver ‘only’ 400-500 Mbps, whereas true 5G is focused on 1 Gbps or better, and much lower latencies.
New Techniques to Deliver Faster Services and Greater Capacity
There’s a lot going on in this corner. After nearly two years of delays, Unlicensed LTE, in the form of LTE-U, is set to roll out this year, with T-Mobile and AT&T leading the charge. This technique augments licensed LTE spectrum with channels in the 5 GHz unlicensed band (used by Wi-Fi) to deliver faster speeds and greater capacity. It’s a win for the cellular operators because they don’t have to buy extra spectrum to use the unlicensed band. While there is contention within the Wi-Fi community because of concerns about interference, the two sides have finally agreed on techniques to minimize the risk.
This will be an interesting test of the ‘coexistence’ of licensed and unlicensed spectrum and the potential for new and creative business models around a differentiated service. Most mobile data services today deliver the same speed to all users, at least in theory. Operators might test the potential for a ‘premium service’, such as speed or capacity boosts, using LTE-U. There are several other approaches to combining licensed and unlicensed services in the works as well, such as LAA, LWA and MulteFire. So LTE-U will be an important litmus test.
Even though there’s already plenty of pre-5G marketing, the LTE roadmap for the next couple of years looks pretty compelling as well. Operators are using additional spectrum they have acquired and deployed to deliver additional channels of carrier aggregation. The most advanced, three-channel carrier aggregation (“3CA”), continues to be rolled out in select markets.
You will also hear more about “4.5G”, or “LTE Advanced Pro”, which employs 20 MHz wide radio channels, carrier aggregation, and advanced antenna techniques to deliver additional capacity and download speeds of 400 Mbps or more. Ironically, this is what is being discussed for some pre-5G services. In fact, per my earlier point, LTE Advanced Pro services might be marketed as early 5G, in the same way WiMAX and HSPA+ services were marketed as 4G even though they weren’t officially LTE.
Finally, AT&T will also be testing AirGig (a technique the Bell Labs folks have been working on for ten years) that uses plastic antennas over power lines regenerating millimeter waves to deliver gigabit speeds. The potential is for a more flexible and cost-effective last mile solution which would have application for both broadband and wireless (for 5G, and backhaul) services. This also leverages existing infrastructure, as finding locations to deploy antennas or small cells has proven vexing for service providers.
New Type of Wireless Networks
During 2017, we will see initial tests and deployments of several new types of mobile networks. During 2016, the FCC issued an order for shared spectrum services, using the 3.5 GHz band (see here for more). Sometime over the next few months, rules and procedures about Spectrum Access System (SAS) will be decided and administrators chosen. During 2017, we could well see some market tests or trials of shared spectrum services. This is an area where the US could really lead in wireless. The proposal for 5G also relies on shared spectrum techniques for some of the millimeter wave spectrum bands.
Also on the LTE front, the provider of the FirstNet public safety network should be chosen within the next couple of months, pending some litigation currently underway. We should see some early FirstNet deployments this year, with a more comprehensive rollout in 2018. More than $7 billion has been earmarked for FirstNet, using proceeds of past spectrum auctions.
Finally, there will be a lot of action related to purpose-built IoT networks this year. Networks using the unlicensed band, such as Sigfox, Lora, and RPMA, are being rolled out. During 2017, the cellular operators are getting into the action, launching IoT networks over LTE (LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT, see “The Emergence of Purpose Built IoT Networks“).
In short, this should be an exciting year for wireless network innovation.