From The Editor | July 19, 2023

Is It Too Late For mmWave To Save 5G?

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By John Oncea, Editor

GettyImages-1410625072 5G

The demand for wireless data bandwidth is constantly increasing without any signs of slowing down. Meanwhile, the mobile data experience for users is evolving, which puts more pressure on the network to use the available wireless spectrum. Considering this trend, could mmWave be the solution to this problem?

5G networks, kind of like the Six Million Dollar Man*, should be “Better ... stronger ... faster” than 4G networks. Right? Unfortunately, this has not necessarily been the case.

Network diagnostic company Ookla notes a review of its Speedtest Intelligence samples found  “significant variance in the consumer experience on today’s 5G networks, with 5G speeds peaking at over 1 Gbps for the top 10% of users in the U.A.E on average, but falling to below 20 Mbps for the lower 10% in Norway, the U.S., Japan, Germany, and Spain.”

In simpler terms, the upload and download speeds of 5G networks in countries worldwide have generally dropped compared with a year ago. Even the most advanced 5G networks can currently only achieve speeds of 1 Gbps, well below the ideal download speed of 20 Gbps set by the International Telecommunication Union nearly a decade ago.

Why is this happening? Let’s start with the sheer number of people using 5G networks, a problem not uncommon when rolling out new technology. According to Ookla’s Mark Giles, the same thing happened with the 4G network. “So, when 4G was first deployed, there was a lot of capacity available for those early adopters. When you run out of capacity, you need to increase the density of base stations.”

It’s those base stations – or more accurately the lack of enough stand-alone 5G base stations – that is gumming up the works. Many operators chose to implement non-stand-alone 5G networks for their deployments meaning that the 5G network is built on the foundation of the existing 4G network infrastructure.

While the performance of a non-stand-alone 5G network may not be as optimal as a stand-alone network, it is a more affordable and less complicated option since it doesn't require starting from scratch. However, this approach can limit the expansion of 5G networks since operators can only build them where there are existing base stations and other necessary facilities. Regulatory and licensing issues also plagued operators, especially in dense urban areas where the biggest challenge is finding a suitable place to place a new base station.

* Good ol’ Steve Austin – with a 20:1 zoom feature with infrared tracking tech in his left eyeball, a super-powered right arm, and bionic legs capable of a top speed of 60 mph – would cost roughly $28 billion in today’s dollars.

mmWave’s To The Rescue?

5G networks have the advantage of utilizing new frequency bands, particularly millimeter wave bands (24 GHz and higher) which offer lower latency and higher data rates. However, a drawback of the high-frequency band is that its propagation distance is quite limited. While this may not pose a problem for cities, it can be impractical for suburban or rural areas. As the usage of 5G networks expands to more and more locations, there may be a general reduction in performance.

Even with that limitation, mmWaves offers a compelling case to provide a “significant impact and return on investment” when thoughtfully deployed, according to IDTechEx. These include indoor/outdoor congested network hot zones, fixed wireless access, and indoor enterprise.

“Hotspots such as stadiums, transportation hubs, and congested areas require high-bandwidth connectivity for both indoor and outdoor users,” explains IDTechEx. “This deployment type is common for mmWave in all countries with commercialized 5G.”

Despite the advancements in connectivity, operators are facing challenges in monetizing it. It has been difficult to increase revenue from consumers upgrading to 5G from 4G, and there are concerns about the feasibility of selling 5G mmWave passes for events. Moreover, users need to have compatible devices, and the device ecosystem is not yet fully developed in many countries. Ultimately, the user experience needs to be exceptional for consumers to justify upgrading their devices for occasional events.

So, mmWaves aren’t going to save the day? Well … it’s complicated.

According to SDxCentral, operators have invested billions of dollars in obtaining licensed access to the mmWave spectrum and are working hard to incorporate these assets into their commercial operations. “This demonstrates that mmWave solutions will be an essential building block for operators to efficiently deliver widespread, multi-gigabit 5G broadband coverage to their customers in urban, suburban, and rural areas, complementing sub-6 GHz spectrum assets,” said Ari Kynäslahti, head of strategy and technology at Nokia Mobile Networks. “This is a substantial achievement that reflects how we are constantly innovating and evolving our 5G services and solutions.”

Dan McNamara, principal analyst with Mobile Experts, expects carriers will need to cover more locations with mmWave as data on the C-Band 5G networks increases, according to 5GStore. “The good news about C-band is that there is a lot of investment in it. And as it gets rolled out, customers will see their phones get faster and that will get them excited,” he said, adding that at this point he believes customers will flock to 5G because the difference between 4G and 5G will be much more evident. “The current systems will see data consumption rise. And in areas where that data consumption gets higher, the operators will support that through mmWave.”