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Helping Millimeter Wave Achieve Its Potential

Patrick Donegan
1/27/2015
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Millimeter wave equipment capable of delivering multi-Gbit/s wireless broadband links has been available for more than 10 years. E-Band Communications and BridgeWave Communications got the ball rolling all those years ago, with equipment designed for outdoor transport applications in the 70/80GHz E-Band.

Firms such as Sub10 Systems have followed suit with 60GHz V-Band product, also for outdoor transport applications.

Given the insatiable demand for high-capacity communications pipes and the undoubted promise of the V-Band and E-Bands in meeting that demand, telecom operators have been pretty slow to roll out millimeter wave equipment. There are a few high-profile examples, such as Clearwire in the US, MTS in Russia, Vodafone in the EU, and some operators in the Middle East using E-Band solutions for mobile backhaul. And there are a growing number of examples of both E-Band and now V-Band links being used for enterprise services, although a lot of them are self-provided by enterprise themselves, rather than deployed and managed by service providers.

But touch base with the handful of vendors that are shipping any of this equipment today and it soon becomes clear that no more than around 100,000 links of E-Band and V-Band equipment have been shipped worldwide to date, the large majority of it being E-Band.

Perhaps not before time, the newly created Millimeter Wave Transmission Forum has set itself the task of jump-starting this market and getting it onto a more aggressive growth path. Formed at the end of 2014, the founding members of the Forum are the "Big Three" in the global microwave network equipment market -- Huawei, Ericsson and NEC -- together with Alcatel-Lucent, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, EE, CommScope and Infineon. These same members also drove the creation of an Industry Specification Group (ISG) for millimeter wave transmission within European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) : The ISG's first meeting took place on January 15, 2015. (See ETSI Throws Weight Behind mWT.)

The Forum's analysis of the millimeter wave equipment market -- and hence the reason for its formation -- is centered around three interrelated pillars:

  • In many key markets such as India and China, the V-Band and E-Band spectrum hasn't even been made available to the private sector yet. Where it has, as in Europe, there are substantial variations in the license terms from one country to the next, which serve as a barrier to investment by the big pan-regional operators.

  • There is inadequate market education with respect to the true impact of extreme weather conditions on the performance of live millimeter wave networks at different frequencies. This has a knock-on effect on the understanding of both operators and national regulators of the real business case for these technologies.

  • There is market confusion with respect to the detailed use cases. For example, in the case of mobile backhaul, there is inadequate understanding of the relevance of the V-Band and E-Band respectively when it comes to macro or small cell backhaul, and for capacity or coverage. There is also inadequate understanding of the precise dependencies on different parts of the millimeter wave ecosystem for the viability and realistic timeframe for each use case.

These three issues are indeed interrelated. In particular, progress in market education can be expected to accelerate timetables for making spectrum available and the efforts among regulators to harmonize their licensing regimes, at least at a regional level.

Two somewhat orthogonal vectors are in the early stages of breathing further new life into this high-potential but low-achievement segment of the telecom equipment market. The WiGig Alliance, featuring more than 40 different companies, including Intel and Qualcomm, has been folded into the WiFi roadmap as 802.11ad. Beginning this year, 802.11ad promises a new market in embedded short-range, multi-Gbit/s WiFi radios at 60GHz for cable replacement, among other indoor applications. Combined with the lobbying efforts of the Millimeter Wave Transmission Forum, the accelerating momentum behind WiGig will help drive the 60GHz equipment ecosystem across indoor and outdoor, cable replacement and wide-area transport applications. There are already examples of silicon vendors and OEMs positioning products for both of these markets.

At the same time, the new vortex in industry dialogue and messaging around 5G is sucking in questions surrounding millimeter wave. Which millimeter wave frequencies are going to be used in 5G? And are they going to be used for 5G access or backhaul, or both? Last August, for example, the EU announced funding of the MiWaves consortium, which includes Telecom Italia, Orange, Nokia, Intel Mobile Communications and STMicroelectronics. MiWaves will research the use of the 60GHz and 71-86GHz bands for both access and backhaul applications in 5G. This should galvanize discussion -- and above all action -- on near-term millimeter wave policy at the level of national regulators. That said, a key task of the new Forum is also to develop effective messaging to mitigate the risk that some regulators will use new 5G deliberations as a reason to introduce further delay into V-Band and E-Band policy-making.

In high-tech as in other commercial sectors, as well as many walks of life, the difference between success and failure often lies not in raw capability, but in the amount of meticulous, grinding, hard work that goes into wringing every last bit of success out of the available asset. The V-Band and E-Band equipment sectors have tremendous potential for the carrier community. There is a lot of that hard work ahead for the new Forum and the ETSI ISG to ensure that that potential materializes -- and quite a few barriers to overcome, too.

— Patrick Donegan, Chief Analyst, Heavy Reading

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3/2/2015 | 11:39:18 AM
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