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Fixed Wireless Revival – 5G FWA for Wireless Fiber Broadband in Urban Markets

Berge Ayvazian, Senior Consultant with Wireless 20/20, looks at 5G FWA trials in the US market and solutions for urban areas.

berge ayvazian

At MWC 2017 all the buzz was on 5G technologies that will enable the next generation of wireless.  The MWC Expo floor was dominated by vendors racing to demonstrate their 5G leadership and showcase their end-to-end product lines.   But hidden behind the marketing hype was a distinct tension over the spectrum bands, use cases and standards that will define the emerging 5G ecosystem.

Despite calls for harmonized 5G spectrum at MWC, the US and EU seem to be on different paths at least in the near term.  Several spectrum bands were identified by the ITU WRC-15 for future 5G services, including three bands above 6GHz in the 24 GHz, 31 GHz and 40 GHz bands.  Europe is currently focusing on sub-6GHz spectrum for initial 5G trials and deployments, including C-Band (3.4 - 3.8GHz), to be allocated for 5G across multiple markets. The EU Council recently adopted a decision which calls for the coordinated use of the 700 MHz band to drive the roll-out of 5G wireless technology and boost mobile broadband connectivity in all EU member states. As a result of this decision, European mobile operators will obtain exclusive access to the 700 MHz band (694-790 MHz) by June 2020, a timeframe that coincides with the expected deployment of 5G networks in Europe.

In the US, the FCC has been pushing for operators and their vendors to get a head start with 5G by unilaterally identifying new mmWave spectrum bands above 6GHz. The FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers proposed order was intended to establish a spectrum environment conducive to 5G investment.   The FCC plans to license spectrum in the 28GHz, 37GHz and 39GHz bands on an exclusive-use, flexible-rights licensed basis, and has identified the 64-71GHz band for unlicensed experimental sharing or other non-exclusive access arrangements.  The FCC has already allocated temporary spectrum licenses to mobile operators for field trials, and is planning to move forward with early auctions of licensed mmWave spectrum.  5G Americas recently published a white paper on 5G Spectrum Recommendations, that highlights the importance of spectrum harmonization across licensed and unlicensed
low-, mid- and high-band to support smooth 5G network deployments and delivery of 5G services.

Europe  EU Council FCC USA  
600 MHz band Auction completed with 39 months for repacking
By June 2020 for EU 5G 700 MHz band
(694-790 MHz)
Already licensed for LTE
C-Band for 5G pre-2020 3.4 – 3.8 GHz CBRS shared
WRC-15 EU 5G 24.5 – 27.5 GHz
27.5 – 28.35 GHz 28GHz 5G
WRC-15 EU 5G 31.8 – 33.4 GHz
37.0 -38.6 GHz 37GHz 5G
38.6 – 40 GHz 39GHz 5G
WRC-15 EU 5G 40.5 – 43.5 GHz
64 – 71 GHz Unlicensed 5G

 

US Operators Testing 5G FWA in mmWave Bands

Operators with spectrum in the 28GHz and 39 GHz bands are among the first to test 5G FWA services in the US.  Verizon and AT&T have been first movers in conducting field trials of 5G technologies to support fixed wireless services in the US.  Both operators have wireline operations that have been deploying fiber, but are now testing 5G FWA as a more cost-effective approach to expand the coverage and capacity of their fixed broadband networks.

AT&T recently announced its 5G Evolution plans for 2017 and beyond, and is collaborating with more than a dozen global technology companies around 5G standards.  AT&T has been testing 5G FWA to understand propagation challenges of very-high-frequency mmWave spectrum and ability to provide large bandwidths.  AT&T Labs is also conducting “field trials” with several utility companies under its “Project AirGig to deliver low-cost, multi-gigabit wireless internet speeds using power lines.

Verizon's 5G efforts are more concentrated on developing a fixed wireless product that will deliver a competitive advantage and near-term return on investment.  Verizon has announced customer trials of 5G technology in five US cities are set to begin in 2Q 2017, with pilots in 11 additional markets expected by the middle of the year. Verizon wants to use 5G FWA to reduce the capital cost of extending the reach of FiOS services via fixed wireless to more US households in select metros.

Both AT&T and Verizon are aggressively pursuing acquisitions of mmWave spectrum.  Verizon recently completed the $1.8 billion acquisition of XO Communications with 26,000 route miles of inner-city fiber networks in 85 cities including Seattle, Miami, NYC and Los Angeles.  In this transaction, Verizon also obtained an option to buy the 102 licenses XO holds in 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands that cover 63% of US Pops by year-end 2018.  In 2017, Verizon is using 100+ MHz of 28 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum leased from XO to conduct pre-commercial 5G FWA trials.

In February 2017, AT&T acquired mobile backhaul provider FiberTower which holds interests in a total of 738 mmWave 24GHz and 39GHz licensesthat cover over 30 US cities and towns.   AT&T recently announced plans to acquire Straight Path Communications which holds 133 licenses in the 28 GHz band and 735 licenses in the 39 GHz band.  AT&T proposed a transaction with a value of $1.6 billion in stock for Straight Path’s 28 and 39 GHz spectrum in the 40 largest markets across the United States, including New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington, DC.  AT&T may now be in a bidding war, as Straight Path is considering a superior new bid valued at $1.8 billion from another “multi-national telecommunications company.”  AT&T has to match or exceed the new bid, which is believed to have come from Verizon, or accept a $38M termination fee from Straight Path.

  Carrier Mobile BB Subscribers Fixed BB Subscribers LTE Spectrum mmWave Spectrum
1 Verizon Wireless 142.754 million 7 million 100+ MHz 28 GHz and 39 GHz
2 AT&T 131.805 million 12 million 100+ MHz 28 GHz and 39 GHz
3 T-Mobile USA 67.384 million NA 78 MHz 28 GHz
4 Sprint 58.446 million NA 200 MHz 14.5-15.35 GHz
5 US Cellular/TDS 4.979 million 230,000 10 MHz  28 GHz Band

 

T-Mobile and Sprint Testing 5G Mobile on mmWave and Sub-6 GHz Bands

T-Mobile has also conducted successful 5G testing using Nokia’s AirScale radio platform using 28 GHz and 39 GHz LMDS spectrum obtained in the MetroPCS acquisition.  But T-Mobile does not plan to use 5G for fixed wireless access and is targeting nationwide 5G coverage by 2020.  The Un-carrier Road to 5G is disruptive and T-Mobile sees 5G as completely transforming the mobile Internet and delivering amazing breakthroughs such as live streaming of videos and concerts, 8K video, 4K 360 video, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.  T-Mobile USA recently announced plans to begin rolling out a 5G network in 2019, using the 600 MHz spectrum acquired for $8 billion in the recent FCC auction.  The FCC recently completed the 600 MHz auction, but cannot release this low-band spectrum to operators until the remaining broadcast spectrum is repacked, a process that could take 39 months.  This makes 600 MHz as a likely coverage band for 5G mobile services to be rolled out after 2020.

Like T-Mobile USA, Sprint does not plan to use 5G to provide fixed wireless broadband targeting businesses and residential households.  The cornerstone of Sprint’s future 5G network will be a massively dense network that uses high-bandwidth spectrum to deliver vast amounts of data at tremendously high speeds.  Sprint is building a strong foundation for 5G by densifying its network with smart antennas to meet future 5G demand for higher data rates. Sprint has worked with both Ericsson and Nokia to demonstrate 5G capabilities with Samsung virtual reality (VR) headsets showing 360 degree views. But rather than acquiring mmWave spectrum, Sprint emphasizes the use of Massive MIMO 32/32 or 64/64 along with its more than 150 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum as the anchor band for its 5G activities.

Leading Vendors Supporting North American 5G FWA Operator Field Trials

Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung each announced and an end-to-end 5G product portfolio and claimed to be on track for commercial availability by yearend 2017.  All three vendors have been participating in North American 5G FWA operator field trials with point-multipoint (PMP) New Radios using beamforming and massive MIMO in mmWave spectrum to provide very high bandwidth links direct to houses and offices.  Wireless 20/20 conducted briefings with four vendors participating in North American 5G FWA network field trials.

 Vendor/Carrier Verizon AT&T T-Mobile USA Sprint US Cellular
Ericsson X X X X X
Nokia X   X X X
Samsung X X X    

 

Ericsson has announced 32 operator partnerships for 5G, including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and US Cellular.  Ericsson also unveiled its portfolio of 5G NR radios, including three Antenna Integrated Radio (AIR) products with massive MIMO and MU-MIMO to address 5G opportunities.

  • The Ericsson AIR 6468 and AIR 6488 use 64 transceiver channels with beam forming and beam tracking designed for both 4G and 5G applications.  The AIR 6468 is for sub 3.5GHz spectrum and the AIR 6488 is for up to 6GHz spectrum bands, and both are designed for compatibility with 5G NR standard while also supporting LTE.
  • Ericsson’s AIR 5121 uses 512 transceiver channels to 5G and allow for multi-gigabit speeds in the 28GHz and 39GHz bands.  All three AIR products include the antenna with the radio.
  • Ericsson and Qualcomm are closely partnering to accelerate the new OFDM-based 5G New Radio (NR) as part of the global 3GPP standard.  Ericsson and IBM have unveiled a new silicon-based millimeter wave phased array IC designed for use in 5G base stations.

Samsung has been testing 5G networks with AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon and recently commenced an extensive Verizon field trial.  During MWC 2017 Samsung announced a commercial end-to-end 5G product portfolio for availability at the end of 2017, including an RFIC chip, radio base station (access unit) , next-generation virtualized core, home router CPEs and 5G RF planning tools.

  • Samsung is developing a new 5G chip that will power both its 5G Radio Base Station and Home Router slated for use in the 28GHz band.  This chip utilizes a high-gain power amplifier to significantly improve the coverage range, and incorporates 16 low-loss antennas to offer much lower phase noise in its operating band and preserve high-speed, high-quality connectivity even in a noisy environment.
  • Samsung 5G Radio Base Station is a natural extension of today’s LTE small cells, designed to support 28GHz spectrum and capable of providing up to 10Gbps when deployed in a dense configuration. The new Samsung base station transmits over an 800 MHz-wide channel using a Time Division Duplex (TDD) frame structure.   Samsung has achieved a 3.7 Gbps link speed using higher order modulation and coding schemes and MIMO communication with beam selection.
  • The Samsung 5G Home Router will offer users gigabit home broadband service when placed in a window facing a 5G Radio base station.

At MWC 2017 Nokia announced its 5G FIRST end-to-end solution incorporating AirScale and AirFrame technology, including AirScale massive MIMO Adaptive Antenna, Cloud Packet Core and mobile transport.  Unlike Ericsson and Samsung, Nokia is not participating in any AT&T 5G FWA field trials and is focused on developing the first 5G end-to-end platform built to Verizon’s “5G Technical Forum”  specifications known as 5GTF New Radio developed along with Korea Telecom outside of 3GPP’s current specification.

3GPP Fast-tracking Non StandAlone 5G NR specifications to Accelerate 5G FWA

Soon after MWC 2017, the 3GPP announced a major decision to adopt a two-phase workplan for standardizing the specifications for the 5G New Radio (NR).   This new work plan introduced a Phase 1 intermediate milestone for the early completion of the Non StandAlone (NSA) mode where the control of the 5G radio service will be “anchored” in the LTE Evolved Packet Core while 5G NR carriers are used to boost data-rates and reduce latency.   The release of an NSA 5G NR configuration by December 2017 would enable deployments based on the technology in early 2019. However, in its own release, 3GPP confirmed the change, but noted the NSA specifications will be finalized by March 2018.  At the same time, the 3GPP re-instated its commitment in Phase 2 to standardize a StandAlone (SA) mode5G NR mode anchored by new 5G cores by September 2018.

Wireless 20/20 believes that splitting the 5G NR standards process into two stages could mean that it would be possible for operators to deploy “5G FWA” services earlier than if vendors and device manufacturers had to wait for the full specs to be frozen.  But fast-tracking the NSA 5G NR specifications could also slow down work on Standalone 5G new radio standards.  Verizon and Samsung were among the opponents to this new work plan, while AT&T, SK Telecom, Qualcomm, Intel, Ericsson, Huawei, Sprint and Deutsche Telekom were among those that supported it.  Verizon has already deployed 5G radios for fixed wireless customer trials in more than 10 US cities, however the equipment may not align with the 3GPP’s initial NSA 5G NR standards even with the accelerated work plan.   Therefore Verizon may have to upgrade its firmware and/or software in these 10 cities in order to ensure that its services work with the 3GPP’s 5G NR standards.

Berge Ayvazian will be speaking on 4G and 5G Fixed Wireless Broadband in North America, and chairing tracks on IoT Connect and 5G Core & Transport Evolution at 5G North America in Austin on May 16-17th, 2017.

Read Berge Ayvazian's views on 4G LTE for Broadband in Rural Communities here.

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