Chinese researchers are growing increasingly interested in the operation of 5G in millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, a development that could portend an eventual rollout of 5G in that spectrum in the world's most populous country.
That development would undoubtedly supercharge the global mmWave industry, which has so far been relegated to a small handful of the world's 5G countries. It could also have significant implications for some companies in the US wireless industry, which have made significant investments into the development of mmWave 5G technologies.
"I've seen this uptick in interest in mmWave spectrum" among Chinese researchers, said Sarah Yost with National Instruments. The company develops testing products and technologies for a variety of engineering projects, including wireless networks. And Yost works in NI's research design and prototyping team, where she's involved in wireless research.
As a routine part of her job, Yost said she fields requests for research on a variety of topics, and she said she's noted a significant increase in interest from China in 5G in mmWave spectrum, as well as in beamforming, 5G in nonterrestrial networks, and communications above 100GHz (spectrum many believe will eventually house 6G).
Yost isn't the only one who expects China to move forward with 5G deployments in mmWave spectrum. Qualcomm's Ignacio Contraras said he expects China to consider commercial 5G deployments in mmWave spectrum in 2021 or later. That would represent a significant development for chipmaker Qualcomm, which has invested a significant amount of attention into silicon for mmWave 5G products.
Indeed, Contraras pointed out that Qualcomm recently tested 5G mmWave connections with Chinese vendor ZTE in the country.
The Chinese behemoth
Chinese wireless network operators are just a few months into their initial 5G launches, but they are already collectively reporting fully 65 million 5G subscribers. While that's a relatively small portion of the 1.4 billion people who live in China, it's far more than the 4 million 5G customers collectively counted by South Korean wireless network operators. US operators have not reported their 5G customer metrics, but they're likely dwarfed by their Chinese and South Korean counterparts.
Chinese officials have allocated mostly midband spectrum (2.6GHz, 3.5GHz and 4.8GHz) to the country's four 5G wireless providers. Such spectrum has been described as "Goldilocks" spectrum because it toes the line between supporting both broad geographic coverage and speedy connections.
And that's noteworthy considering US officials have been criticized for focusing initial 5G efforts on operations in mmWave spectrum. Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T have all embarked on 5G deployments in mmWave spectrum, but are working to expand their 5G offerings into other spectrum bands. Unlike 5G in midband and lowband spectrum, 5G in highband, mmWave spectrum can't cover wide geographic areas. However, it can support blazing fast speeds.
mmWave economies of scale
The US, by all accounts, is leading in the rollout of mmWave 5G. But it's not alone. Qualcomm's Contraras said that operators in Japan are deploying mmWave 5G, and that operators in Russia, South Korea, Australia and elsewhere are also moving forward with their own mmWave deployments.
According to the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), there were a total of 200 5G devices announced in January 2020, and a third of those support at least one mmWave spectrum band.
Thus, a Chinese move into 5G in mmWave spectrum could have significant repercussions for the global wireless industry. Chinese purchase orders would likely dwarf the purchase orders from virtually every other country in the world, thereby helping to spur mmWave innovation and lower equipment costs. After all, China's three top operators are on pace to erect fully half a million 5G basestations this year alone.
"The expected socio-economic impact of allocating mmWave spectrum for 5G networks in China is significant," wrote GSMA, the global wireless industry's main trade group, in a recent policy paper. The association urged Chinese policy makers to quickly allocate mmWave spectrum in China to operators and enterprises, without charging initial spectrum license fees.
Doing so, the group argued, would create an economic benefit in the country totaling $104 billion by 2034. The GSMA said mmWave spectrum is ideal for 5G deployments in dense urban areas, manufacturing facilities and transportation operations, among other locations.