Welcome to the latest flavor of 5G: standalone 5G NR-U. According to Qualcomm's Dean Brenner, it's comparable to WiFi, only much, much better.
"There will be a better quality of service for everyone" with the standalone version of 5G NR-U, Brenner said. He said Qualcomm will be showing off the technology -- part of the 3GPP's Release 16, scheduled for availability later this year -- at its booth at the upcoming Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain.
Standalone 5G NR-U is basically a version of 5G that can be deployed into unlicensed spectrum (where WiFi mostly works today). This would mark a big step in the 5G market because most 5G equipment is primarily designed for licensed spectrum bands. Cellular operators like Verizon and AT&T have spent billions of dollars to purchase spectrum licenses so that they don't have to share that spectrum with other users (as WiFi users do).
WiFi, on the other hand, is primarily used in unlicensed spectrum. Such spectrum isn't owned by anyone, and can be used by just about anyone who follows the basic broadcasting rules set down by the FCC.
Thus, with the standalone version of 5G NR-U, players that don't own spectrum, or even those that do, could opt to deploy 5G instead of WiFi in unlicensed spectrum bands.
According to proponents like Qualcomm, the standalone version of 5G NR-U can be applied to a wide range of new and potentially disruptive business models:
"The ability to operate 5G NR stand-alone in unlicensed spectrum is a basic technology enabler that will be exploited by future use cases, surely more than the ones we can think about right now. This is not about creating a better WiFi, but about serving unmet needs to expand the market for wireless communication to new verticals," explained Qualcomm's Lorenzo Casaccia in a post on the company's blog last year.
As Qualcomm explained in a recent FCC filing, the standalone version of 5G NR-U leverages new technologies like spatial division multiplexing (SDM) and coordinated multipoint sharing (CoMP) that can basically point wireless transmissions in specific directions. As a result, a geographic area can be broken up into specific zones of usage -- meaning, you could get your own little bubble of wireless service, and you wouldn't have to share that bubble with anyone else.
According to Qualcomm, such technologies can boost the speeds of each user in a coverage area from 20Mbit/s to up to 280Mbit/s.
Standalone 5G NR-U essentially pulls together the threads of several different technologies and trends in the wireless market. It's basically a sister technology to Licensed Assisted Access 5G NR-U, which is also in the 3GPP's Release 16 plans. That technology will allow 5G operators sending signals in licensed spectrum to expand those transmissions into unlicensed spectrum. (It's basically the 5G version of LAA that's currently in use in the LTE networks of operators including AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon). Standalone 5G NR-U also traces a heritage from the MulteFire Alliance, which essentially promotes the use of LTE technology in unlicensed spectrum.
However, as Qualcomm's Brenner explains, there's a hitch in Qualcomm's plans for 5G in unlicensed spectrum. A full-blown, standalone 5G NR-U system would require each access point to coordinate with other nearby access points. And that's why Qualcomm is asking the FCC to allocate a chunk of the 6GHz band for technologies like standalone 5G NR-U that require coordination. Specifically, per Qualcomm's request, operations in the U-NII-7 chunk of the 6GHz band (basically 350MHz of the full 1200MHz in the band) would essentially have to first check if there's coordination going on. If there's not, other operations can use it. But if there are, the coordinated operations would get first dibs on the U-NII-7 portion of the 6GHz band.
It's also important to note here that Qualcomm isn't asking the FCC to carve out a specific chunk of spectrum for 5G and 5G only. Brenner explained that Qualcomm is taking a technology-neutral approach to its request, asking only that the FCC set guidelines for coordination and synchronization in the U-NII-7 chunk of the 6GHz band, not mandate it for 5G. He pointed out that 802.11be Extremely High Throughput (EHT) is a version of WiFi under development that also uses synchronization and spatial sensing, like the standalone version of 5G NR-U does, and therefore would also leverage the U-NII-7 carve-out.
Further, Brenner pointed out that Qualcomm maintains a substantial investment in WiFi technologies through its various products, and so it's support for standalone 5G NR-U isn't a direct attack on WiFi.
But, to be clear, the bulk of Qualcomm's business model and patent-licensing business centers around 5G, so the company certainly could benefit from a wider uptake of the technology.
Moreover, 5G NR-U has a long way to go to replace WiFi. For example, Cisco recently pointed out that, by 2022, 51% of total IP traffic will be on WiFi, 29% will be on wired networks -- and just 20% will be mobile (cellular).
And many in the industry are already working to break down the walls between WiFi and 5G anyway. For example, the NGMN and Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) recently discussed the possibility of the convergence of 3GPP technologies and WiFi "including tighter integration of WiFi access in 5G networks, network manageability and policy control, and the enablement of WiFi-only devices," the groups said.
That's already happening, to some degree. AT&T just announced a major WiFi offloading deal with Boingo.
So will the FCC agree to carve out a section of the 6GHz band for unlicensed 5G? Qualcomm certainly thinks there are strong reasons to do so. "These advanced sharing techniques can effectively enable guaranteed spectrum access for services that require a given QoS, vastly increasing spectral efficiency and value. Thus, 5G NR-U technology can enable wireless system operators, including those with limited or no licensed spectrum, to offer fiber-like 5G experiences within new unlicensed or shared bands," Qualcomm wrote.
But, as with any new technology, timing is everything. Qualcomm's Brenner is hoping that the arrival of the standalone version of 5G NR-U will coincide with the release of the 6GHz band for commercial usage. After all, the FCC is currently holding a proceeding to see whether it can release some or all of the 6GHz band for unlicensed use. A wide range of players -- from Verizon to Charter to Apple -- are urging the FCC to do just that.
If the agency does decide to release the 6GHz band for unlicensed use -- and if the agency agrees to set aside a chunk of the band for coordinated systems like standalone 5G NR-U -- the opportunities could be significant, according to Qualcomm. The company said the actions may well lead to "improved broadband connectivity and highly useful industrial IoT and consumer applications, such as precision machine control, ultra-high-definition quality gaming, and virtual travel via AR/VR applications."