As 5G technology becomes increasingly widespread, attention is veering towards high band 5G mmWave spectrum to deliver greater capacity and faster performance levels for data-intensive 5G mobile communications such as video communications, as well as virtual and augmented reality.
With mobile experiences become more sophisticated, networks are pressured to expand wireless spectrums to support large bandwidths and high data rates for 5G systems to drive technology evolution. For mobile operators, 5G mmWave presents an opportunity to deliver unparalleled performance benefits for fixed wireless, enterprises and industrial applications for a broad set of use cases such as smart factories, supply chain visibility and indoor navigation.
Even though high band mmWave is not new, it fell short previously owing to challenges such as high propagation losses and sensitivity to blockages by human bodies and buildings. But these issues can be resolved as mmWave combines line-of-sight (LOS) and non-line-of-sight (NLOS) signals with distributed antenna designs and advanced beamformers to expand a network’s coverage.
While 5G low bands deliver 5G coverage over long distances, 5G high bands or mmWave deliver optimal coverage over short distances, and best complemented with low and mid bands for improved capacity and coverage. The earliest adopter of 5G mmWave is the US, which opted for high band spectrum first in its 5G strategy. This is contrary to most countries, which opted for mid-band spectrums first, before pursuing high band mmWave.
For mmWave to pick further momentum now, stakeholders such as regulators, mobile operators and vendors must come together. For regulators, it means embracing 5G and freeing up mmWave bands to mobile operators to grow their coverage beyond low- and mid-band spectrums, and hence enable high capacity delivery and enhanced handling of peak rates. By fuelling 5G performance levels, countries that make digital transformation a priority can yield greater economic benefits in the long run. Likewise, vendors must support this evolution by continuing to roll out suitable and even improved mobile devices and customer premises equipment (CPE) that are accessible and affordable.
According to GSA, about 106 operators in 20 countries and/or territories hold public licenses of 5G networks utilizing mmWave spectrum. Of which, only about 24 operators in 15 countries and/or territories are using mmWave to power deployed 5G networks. In November 2019, World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) identified new frequencies for IMT. While 5G mmWave is more predominant in the US and Europe, Asia Pacific is slowly coming into the picture, with Japan being the earliest adopter, followed by South Korea.
Other countries such as Singapore and Thailand have just awarded mmWave allocations last year. Of which, Singapore Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) awarded three mobile operators 800 MHz of 26 GHz and 28 GHz mmWave. One of the operators, Singtel, has switched on mmWave in certain areas in the city, with dedicated experiences zones to provide users 3.2 Gbps streamed content powered by 5G mmWave. The mobile operator will also be working with enterprise customers to develop autonomous guided vehicles and mixed reality.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) auctioned 26 GHz to three mobile operators, namely AIS, Dtac and TrueMove H. In the region, Australia is the latest to open applications for auction of 26 GHz and 28 GHz mmWave spectrums. India is very likely to carry out 5G spectrum auctions soon.
On the other hand, in anticipation of the rise of mmWave in the region, Taiwan-based semiconductor firm MediaTek recently unveiled M80, its first mmWave-capable modem. Launched in the same month, M80 will be in direct competition with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 5G modem.
Also competing in the emerging mmWave space, NEC leverages on its expertise in digital beamforming technology and Massive-MIMO in launching a distributed-MIMO technology that delivers three times the number of simultaneous connections and transmission capacity in the 28 GHz mmWave frequency band – using a large number of distributed antennas rather than in a single tray.
It also helps that there are new technologies to support a denser and more cost-effective 5G mmWave network to deliver the desired low latency and high speed. Using integrated access and backhaul (IAB), base stations not only provide wireless access for users, but also wirelessly backhaul from nearby base stations using the same mmWave spectrum. This results in improved performance, greater efficiency of spectrum resources and lower costs, thereby allowing operators to expand their mmWave networks readily and more affordably.
Even though APAC is behind in terms of mmWave adoption, when compared to the US, some countries are quick in catching up. Taiwan, for instance, claims the first spot in launching a smart factory powered by a private 5G mmWave network.
According to Research and Markets, the global mmWave technology market is predicted to grow from US$1 billion in 2020 to US$3.4 billion by 2025. During this time, APAC is projected to grow at the fastest rate. Clearly, 5G mmWave is an important criterion worldwide, and particularly in APAC as countries grow their network bandwidth and capacity to enable full-fledge 5G services and experiences.