Ofcom approves 5G mmWave, but what are its benefits?
High-frequency mmWave 5G can help deliver far better network capacity and might prove better value for money
As 5G rollouts continue across the world, regulators are seeking to auction new, high-frequency spectrums classified as millimetre-wave (mmWave). After much consideration, Ofcom has ruled in 2023 it will make mmWave spectrum available across the UK to improve data capacity and speeds, and boost innovation across various industries.
These frequencies have long been seen as impractical, as they offer far weaker building penetration than mid-band 5G and are inherently short-range. But due to the vast speed and capacity improvements achievable, the coming years will see 5G mmWave become ubiquitous across the UK 5G network, and used widely by enterprises.
Although some of its characteristics are shared with conventional 5G, it’s worth knowing just what sets it apart from the 5G mid-band, and how it can best be harnessed for the benefit of businesses.
What is 5G mmWave?
MmWave, sometimes known as the millimetre band, is the band of radio frequencies between 24-100GHz. It offers marked improvements over the current sub-7GHz bands used for 5G in countries such as the UK, with far greater stability in congested areas and download speeds in crowded venues comparable to that of peak mid-band speeds.
The Radio Spectrum Policy Group (RSPG) had previously identified 26GHz as the high-band third of its ‘pioneer bands’, the list of 5G spectrum allocation recommendations for Europe that the group published in 2016. 28GHz is the band already in use by mobile network operators (MNOs) in the United States and Japan.
Ofcom has identified 26 GHz (24.25-27.5 GHz) and 40 GHz (40.5 GHz-43.5 GHz) as the bands that it will allocate for mmWave, in line with the precedent set around the world.
What are the benefits of 5G mmWave technology?
Experts claim once 5G mmWave has been properly implemented, businesses will begin to experience the 'full potential’ of 5G. That’s a bold statement, but higher wavelength 5G does offer a range of benefits to complement existing 5G infrastructure and rectify existing 5G networks’ major deficiencies.
The headline benefit of 5G mmWave, particularly on an individual level, is far higher rates of data transfer. Users should expect multiple GB/sec up and down on 5G mmWave-enabled devices, which is perfect for streaming ultra-high-definition video such as broadcasts or surveillance feeds. It also supports massive data transfers that current 5G bandwidth cannot accommodate; this is necessary for effective cloud computing and real-time analytics in environments like smart ports and smart cities.
Another benefit is that with 400-800% improvements in network capacity, cost per bit also decreases. In this way, 5G mmWave proves itself as an economic boon for enterprises, as the cheapest and most effective option in key environments.
Enterprises will also benefit massively from 5G mmWave’s improved throughput in high density areas, which allows for better network connectivity in transport hubs and factory floors. Mid-band 5G struggles to supply connections to devices in environments of high network congestion, as in poor latency for equipment such as Internet of Things (IoT) devices and autonomous vehicles.
A Bell Labs study commissioned by Qualcomm noted 5G mmWave is up to 75% more cost-effective than mid-range 5G at serving network capacity in congested areas. MNOs can take advantage of these unique properties to take pressure off mid-band infrastructure, while improving the experience for customers.
Verizon has already demonstrated this, having deployed mmWave tech in more than 60 stadiums across the United States. At Super Bowl LVI last year, Verizon used 5G mmWave to deliver network connectivity for over 70,000 attendees, maintaining a downlink peak throughout of over 3Gbits/sec, an uplink peak throughout of over 170Mbits/sec, and an average 10ms ping latency.
The same Bell Labs study showed with its increased bandwidth and throughput, 5G mmWave requires fewer small cell towers in congested areas. MNOs deploying 5G mmWave could see energy consumption reduced by up to 70%, in a win for costs and sustainability.
Are devices 5G mmWave-ready?
The Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) recognised 178 mmWave-enabled devices at last count, and notes this ecosystem is expanding. As more territories complete spectrum auctions and the benefits of 5G mmWave are realised, it's likely this number will increase to meet demand.
For consumers, this may go unnoticed, but businesses will have clear opportunities to upgrade existing network devices and campuses to make best use of 5G mmWave. Even devices as simple as business smartphones can benefit from the new network technology.
Manufacturers throughout the supply chain are working on ensuring interoperability and efficient 5G mmWave use is enabled on future handsets and laptops, and business networks will continue to adapt to the benefits of the new technology.
Where is 5G mmWave being deployed?
In the UK, plans for mmWave deployment are in the hands of Ofcom. The regulatory agency ruled in 2023 it would make mmWave spectrum available.
“We do expect there to be a mix of licensing, it’s probably not going to be national licences like we have in other European countries like Spain or Finland,” Lugi Ardito, senior director of government affairs at Qualcomm tells IT Pro.
“We expect Ofcom actually to have a set of licences for very high-density areas with a national-wide footprint, and then in addition to that there will be some local licences as well.”
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Ofcom anticipates mmWave rollout will primarily be in high-density areas such as towns, cities, and travel hubs. With this in mind, it's suggested auctions for citywide licenses, with specific structures for these to be decided through the consultation. These will cover 25.10-27.5GHz allocation, while 24.45-25.10GHz will be allocated through Ofcom’s Shared Access framework in high density areas on a first come, first served basis.
Lower density areas will be awarded 24.45-27.5GHz through the framework, while the bottom 200MHz of the band (24.25-24.45GHz) will be reserved for Ministry of Defence (MoD) access.
For the entire 40GHz band, Ofcom is proposing citywide licenses obtained via auction and for operators in the rest of the country to be allocated licenses on a first come, first served basis.
In addition to MoD concerns, Ofcom has noted that existing 26GHz and 40GHz users will need to cease activity on those spectrums to prevent “harmful interference”. The latter was not previously expected to be used for future mobile networks, and as such it is in use by MNOs who will now have their access revoked.
In addition to the UK, Austria and Norway are expected to conduct auctions for the 26GHz band in 2023. Countries that have already conducted auctions of this kind in the EU include Italty, Spain, Germany, and Finland, while France will take part in these at a later date. In the US, which adopted 28GHz as its band for mmWave, MNOs such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and US Cellular have already deployed 5G mmWave across cities and congested hotspots. The same is true of Japan, which has deployed 5G mmWave as part of its 5G standalone (SA) network.
Other countries and territories are developing mmWave at pace. In October 2022, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) became the first B2B enterprise to be awarded an mmWave licence in China. It intends to use the technology to connect its wired and wireless manufacturing floors.
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