Every once in a long while, a new technology comes along that redefines the boundaries and assumptions that came before it. While it is still being extensively tested, 5G NR mmWave is emerging as a key technology that could define the next big moment in the mobile industry, ushering in the next generation of user experiences and significantly increasing network capacity.

It is coming at just the right time, too. Mobile networks are facing soaring demands for mobile data as consumers increasingly utilize mobile devices to share and consume high-fidelity multi-media. On top of this, as the capabilities of mobile devices continue to grow — think high-resolution cameras, 4K video, VR, AR— so does the ever-increasing consumer demand for faster, better connectivity.

This insatiable demand for mobile broadband was recently validated by a global 5G Consumer Survey that Qualcomm conducted. The survey found that approximately 50% of consumers surveyed were likely to purchase a smartphone with 5G when it’s available. The consumers cited 10x faster speeds, 10x quicker response time, and more cost-effective and unlimited data plans as the top reasons.

To fuel this ever-increasing demand, we need access to more spectrum. Spectrum is the lifeblood of mobile connectivity. It is simple — more spectrum means more network capacity, which means faster data rates and better user experience. One key opportunity 5G will bring is making use of new higher spectrum bands not previous suitable for mobile communications. 5G NR — the global 5G standard — is being designed not only for bands below 3 GHz where most mobile communications happen today, but also to provide a unified design that will make use of mid-bands, such as 3.3 to 6 GHz, as well as high-bands above 24 GHz, loosely known as mmWave.

Figure 1: 5G NR unified design across diverse spectrum bands and types

Although the use of bands above 24 GHz for wireless communications is nothing new, mmWave is a completely new frontier for mobile that is very compelling as the large bandwidths available at these high frequencies enables extremely high data rates and significant increases in capacity. mmWave bands have been utilized for quite some time in fixed, line-of-sight wireless communications for fixed wireless backhaul and satellite communications. However, increased propagation loss, susceptibility to blockage (e.g. hand, head, body, foliage, building penetration), and RFIC complexity and power-efficiency, has historically made these high-bands not feasible for mobile communications. That is, until now. 5G NR based mmWave is changing this, and Qualcomm is leading the way.

There is a decent amount of skepticism in the industry on the ability to make mobile 5G NR mmWave a commercial reality in 2019 — overcoming the challenges at these higher frequencies to deliver robust mobile communications in mobile form factors, like smartphones. At Qualcomm, we have a long history of solving wireless challenges that others thought were impossible. We have been working on the key design elements necessary to harness mmWave bands for usage in mobile broadband communication systems — proving to both ourselves and the industry what is feasible and what needs more work. I am very excited to share with you some of the progress we’ve made on this subject.

Demonstrating sustained mobile broadband communications in real-world environments

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year, we demonstrated our first-generation 5G mmWave prototype system, operating at 28 GHz. The prototype system and over-the-air testing was conducted utilizing our 5G mmWave trial network we built at our Research Center in New Jersey. Our testing went far-beyond the typical 5G mmWave industry demonstration of a multi-gigabit, line-of-sight mmWave communication link. The testing showcases how advanced 5G NR adaptive beamforming and beam tracking techniques can be utilized to deliver robust mobile broadband communications in real-world environments. These real-world environments included device mobility inside a moving vehicle, indoor mobility in an office environment including wall penetration, dynamic body- and hand-blocking, and fast beam-switching between multiple base stations (gNodeBs). Check out the video below to learn more about our prototype system and extensive over-the-air testing.

Showcasing significant outdoor mmWave coverage is possible utilizing existing LTE sites

Another common area of skepticism for utilizing mmWave bands in mobile networks is the need for massive small cell deployments to take advantage of these technologies. This need for many new small cell sites leads some to believe that even if 5G NR mmWave could deliver robust mobile communications, it will take many years to reach commercial reality as deploying all these new sites would take a lot of time and investment by mobile operators.

5G NR mmWave will require dense network topologies with inter-site distances of ~150 to 200m. However, based on a set of simulation studies we recently performed in large cities across the world (results for five global cities shown below in Figure 2), we have shown that significant outdoor coverage is possible utilizing existing LTE macro and small cell sites. This significant outdoor coverage makes mobile deployments based on existing cell sites possible, especially when considering the tight-interworking of 5G NR with LTE to fill in the coverage gaps.

Figure 2: 5G NR mmWave outdoor network coverage simulations

We recently demonstrated our San Francisco simulation at Mobile World Congress Americas (see Figure 3 below). Beyond showcasing decent (~65%) downlink coverage in an ~10 km2 area of the city, the coverage simulation also showcased even better coverage (>80%) in a 1 km2 downtown section by co-siting with existing LTE dense deployments. The simulation also showcased that even at the cell edges, 100+ Mbps peak data rates were possible due to the large channel bandwidths possible at these high-frequency bands. Although mmWave outdoor-to-indoor coverage for mobile is not feasible, this decent outdoor mmWave coverage frees up sub-6 GHz (either LTE or 5G NR) for outdoor-to-indoor capacity. In addition, outdoor mmWave coverage can be complemented with targeted indoor mmWave deployments. We plan to publish a whitepaper later this month that details these network coverage simulations, including new simulations for indoor environments. In the meantime, more information is available by downloading our 5G NR mmWave presentation.

Figure 3: San Francisco outdoor network coverage simulation

Demonstrating an optimized RF Front-end design in smartphone form factor

The dominant mobile form factor today is, of course, the smartphone. Over the last 5+ years, RF complexity in our mobile devices has exploded due to the increasing amount of frequency bands and band combinations. Adding mmWave to 5G mobile devices will even further increase this complexity as it will require mmWave RF Front-end (RFFE) modules with multiple antenna elements for beamforming in X-, Y-, and Z-directions. Furthermore, multiple locations will be required to account for body- and hand-blocking. And therefore, another source of skepticism with utilization of mmWave bands for mobile is whether fitting this RF complexity into a smartphone form factor is even possible.

We recently announced our new 5G NR mmWave prototype and trial platform to accelerate mobile deployments for smartphones. The 2nd generation 5G mmWave prototype is based on the 5G New Radio (NR) Release-15 specifications being developed by 3GPP and will be utilized in upcoming 3GPP-based 5G NR mmWave interoperability testing and over-the-air 5G NR trials starting in the second half of 2017. With support for 800 MHz bandwidth and advanced 5G NR technologies including advanced channel coding, the prototype system is designed to support peak download speeds of up to 5 gigabits per second.

The UE prototype enables over-the-air testing of real-world mmWave mobile challenges, such as device and hand-blocking. Additionally, it provides mobile device OEMs an opportunity to gain an early start at optimizing their devices for the unique challenges associated with integrating 5G NR mmWave technologies in form factor-accurate devices.

Making 5G NR mmWave a 2019 commercial reality … in your smartphone

There is still work to be done in order to make 5G NR mmWave a commercial reality in 2019.

First and most immediate, the anchor of the 5G NR mobile experience will be Gigabit LTE. Gigabit LTE is providing the first glimpse of 5G enhanced mobile broadband today and is an essential upgrade for mobile networks on the path to 5G. Qualcomm has been leading the way on Gigabit LTE, which has truly become a global phenomenon in 2017.

On the 5G NR front, the industry is hard at work finalizing the first release (Rel-15) of the 3GPP technical specifications, including the Non-Standalone (aka NSA) 5G NR specifications that are expected to be completed at the end of this year. Our Qualcomm Research 5G NR prototype systems, both mmWave and sub-6 GHz, were designed to track and drive this standardization process. As such, these prototype systems are built to support early 3GPP-compliant 5G NR interoperability testing with infrastructure vendors starting later this year. This will then lead to 3GPP-compliant over-the-air trials with mobile network operators that will test 5G NR mmWave and sub-6 GHz technologies in real-world deployment scenarios and use cases.  

The testing and trials intend to drive the mobile ecosystem toward rapid validation and commercialization of 5G NR technologies at scale. Qualcomm Technologies is utilizing learning from the testing and trials to help continue to drive the ongoing development of the Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G modem family, with the first 3GPP standard-compliant 5G commercial products, including premium smartphones, featuring Snapdragon X50 5G NR modems expected to be available in 2019.

Although there is still work to do, we are confident that we can achieve this next big moment in the mobile industry, making 5G NR mmWave a commercial reality in 2019 mobile networks and mobile devices, including smartphones. But don’t just take my word — learn more by downloading our new presentation.

Qualcomm Research is a division of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.

Qualcomm Snapdragon is a product of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.

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