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Ofcom Hypes Beamforming for 5G Fixed Wireless

UK telecom regulator says beamforming could transform the fixed wireless business case as governments are accused of treating spectrum like a 'cash cow.'

Iain Morris

October 24, 2018

4 Min Read
Ofcom Hypes Beamforming for 5G Fixed Wireless

BERLIN -- Broadband World Forum 2018 -- Assailed by 5G hype, telecom industry watchers have a hard time separating fact from fiction, said Adrian Scrase, the chief technology officer of standards group ETSI, during a panel session at this week's Broadband World Forum in Berlin. So just for good measure, Ofcom CTO Mansoor Hanif, a speaker on the same panel, piled on a bit more.

Beamforming, said Hanif, will transform the business case for operators using 5G as a broadband access or so-called "fixed wireless" technology. Beamforming is part of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) 5G New Radio spec, which is expected to go live in initial commercial networks as early as November 2018.

The technique, which apparently turns the mobile signal into a kind of heat-seeking missile aimed at customer devices, could help to negate the weak signal propagation that comes with higher frequencies. On that much, the industry can agree. Yet beamforming is still unproven in a commercial setting, and not everyone is convinced it will be as revolutionary as Hanif claims.

Cynics might accuse the Ofcom man of hyping the technology to fuel interest in a future auction of higher frequency spectrum. If telcos are eventually persuaded that beamforming will make a radical difference, they are likely to attach a much higher valuation to these airwaves. Right now, there is international disagreement on how much they are worth, Hanif points out. Of the €6.6 billion ($7.5 billion) that operators spent during Italy's recent 5G spectrum auction, just €164 million ($187 million) went on higher frequency bands. In the US, by contrast, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) this year spent $3.1 billion (in stock) to acquire a company called Straight Path purely because of its generous "millimeter wave" spectrum holdings. (See Verizon Buys Straight Path for $3.1B, Beating AT&T to 5G Spectrum.)

The problems with beamforming are likely to occur in busy areas where people and large vehicles are constantly moving around, according to William Webb, a wireless expert and consultant who has previously advised Ofcom on technology issues. On a recent Telecoms.com podcast, Webb said these moving obstacles might prove disruptive for operators with beamforming technology. Of course, if 5G fixed wireless is used mainly in less built-up areas (where fiber is unlikely to be available), this might not be any kind of concern. Moreover, the customer terminal (typically a box on the side of a building) is stationary in a fixed wireless deployment. (See The Telecoms.com Podcast: 5G, IoT & Apple iPhone.)

That might not let Hanif off the hook. Another panelist lashed out at the typical regulatory approach to spectrum auctions. "Frankly, many governments think spectrum is a cash cow," said Paul Hjul, the director of a small South African service provider called Crystal Web. "The greater the hype the more money they make in the auction."

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Others clearly remain worried that higher frequencies will be of little use unless small cells are sprinkled liberally across the footprint at considerable expense. "I look forward to 5G spectral efficiency but the densification aspect is not something we would deploy," said Leo Lundy, the CTO of Imagine Communications, a small service provider in Ireland. "We will not hang a small cell off every lamppost in the country."

Even with some densification, the cost of customer premises equipment will have to fall to make 5G fixed wireless more "financially viable" for a company like Imagine, according to Lundy. Without the deep pockets of Ireland's big mobile operators, which include the multinational giants of 3 and Vodafone, Imagine could be left with the "scraps from the table" in future spectrum auctions, he fears.

Telcos, naturally, will form opinions about the effectiveness of beamforming based on their trials, and not what a regulator says. If the technology turns out to be a game changer, it could drive up spending in future auctions of millimeter wave spectrum. But the wildly contrasting results of recent 3.6GHz sales in Finland and Italy -- with the former raising just $0.04 per MHz per head of population, and the latter as much as $0.42 -- showed that prices are determined largely by the shape of the auction. That is entirely under the regulator's control. (See Finland's 5G sale is no Italian job and Italy's $7.6B 5G bonanza puts telcos on the rack.)

— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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