Spectrum is not 5G’s biggest challenge

January 28th, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EngineerIT

When new technologies come about, so do the hypes around them. Think back to WiMAX – it was certain to take over the communications world, but then came LTE and LTE advanced to challenge its position. Today’s hype is 5G, with all the great things it will bring.

It is true that it will become an important element in self-driving cars, due to its provision of fast communication with mega bandwidth and low latency. But the world is running ahead of itself. We talk as if 5G is coming tomorrow and I am not referring to the few trials that have started up here and there, even in Lesotho and Soweto. They are what they are, just trials! One Government spokesperson recently made a frightening remark: “Why does industry still want spectrum for 4G broadband if we can skip 4G and go straight to 5G?”

It seems that all the focus is on the fact that we urgently need spectrum for 5G. Undoubtedly, we do, but what about the problem of interconnecting the thousands of base stations. Will fibre be the answer? Will it be millimetre wave point-to-point or will it be satellites or a combination of all? Perhaps these are the bigger challenges than spectrum!

The problem with hype is that the focus on the many current communications issues is lost, 5G may solve future challenges but right now the focus should be on connecting South Africans with LTE broadband.

When T-Mobile’s chief executive went before US Senate lawmakers towards the end of last year to make the case for his company’s merger with Sprint, he argued the deal could help preserve US dominance in high-tech wireless networks for smartphones and other devices. According to the Washington Post he told lawmakers “We’ll make sure America wins the global 5G race. 5G will unlock capabilities that will fuel job creation and innovation well beyond what we have seen so far.”

T-Mobile is not the only carrier touting the amazing new capabilities of 5G, or fifth-generation data networks. The entire industry, South Africa included, spent much of 2018 marketing a dazzling future to consumers, one in which the successor to 4G LTE enables entirely new technologies, such as self-driving cars and remote medicine.

Despite the hype, 5G is still a long way from becoming a reality. In South Africa, mobile companies are struggling to make LTE (4G) work for the majority of South Africans. They still do not have spectrum to offer a viable LTE service that will deliver broadband to all in the country. Currently limited LTE is delivered in major cities by spectrum refarming, a fashionable term for steeling spectrum at the cost of 2G and 3G services on which the majority of South Africans still depend.

Another hype doing the rounds in South Africa is that 5G will solve communication problems for rural populations. It is difficult to believe that such pronouncements are made as it is a scientific fact that while 5G will deliver huge bandwidth at incredible speeds, it requires base stations or similar systems every few hundred metres and some form of interconnect such as fibre, millimetre wave radio systems, or satellites. At this time, most rural areas do not have a fibre backbone or high bandwidth connections.

Spectrum is not 5G’s biggest challenge

The spectrum required for 5G is in the 26, 40 and 66 – 71 GHz bands, not the same as the 4G spectrum problem for which the 700 – 800 MHz and the 2,6 GHz spectrum is required, the so-called high priority bands. Digital TV migration would have gone a long way to bring broadband closer to rural communities but because of many years of bickering about whether the service should be encrypted or not, digital migration has not yet happened and there is no digital dividend so much spoken about. The 700 – 800 MHz band is particularly suited for rural areas as base stations can cover much longer distances than the 2,6 GHz or higher frequency bands.

The 5G interconnect challenge

Delivering the keynote address at the FTTX annual conference in Durban last year, FTTX Council president, Andile Ngcaba, said as industry is preparing for the rollout of 5G, the cooperation between municipalities and the optic fibre industry is crucial given that for 5G to cover a city block, 15 to 20 micro base stations are required on average, each one connected by a fibre link. But can every city block and industrial business park be dug up to install all the required fibre?

Municipalities are pushing back at the proposed rapid deployment policy plan included in the draft ECA Amendment Bill. The problem of getting wayleaves is not likely to be resolved any time soon as the draft bill has been sent back by Parliament to the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) for major revision.

New wireless systems are now challenging the space occupied by fibre. Globally, operators are looking at wireless technology as a new, low cost alternative for interconnect. On the surface, it looks like the worlds of wired and wireless are colliding, but what we are actually seeing are two uniquely different broadband networks maturing and evolving in ways that are mutually beneficial, but standing in the wings is the satellite industry claiming a portion of the interconnect pie.

For some commercial satellite communication operators, there is a focus on backhaul transport of 5G networks. This will likely require the extension of 3GPP protocols primarily by adaptation of satellite communication equipment to support the integration with cellular networks requiring interoperability tests with 5G terrestrial infrastructure. With the development of 5G systems, satellite communications systems can leverage open standards to reduce the development, deployment and operational cost of terminals, as well as other satellite network infrastructure equipment such as gateways. This will make the inclusion of satellite network solutions into the 5G ecosystem much more economically attractive than if proprietary standards are followed. This approach will facilitate a tighter operational integration (e.g., plug-and-play approach) into the 5G heterogeneous network to support vertical hand-over and/or multi-connectivity under common network management. The on-going 5G standardisation process provides a unique opportunity to insert satellite specific hooks as required.

5G will not come tomorrow. The industry may finalise some of the specifications but then the real work has to start to plan networks. While spectrum is an important issue, it is the interconnection of base stations and the development of a robust network that will remain a major point on the agenda for the next few years.

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