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The Road to 5G NR and Why Fibre is Pivotal  

Radio spectrum. It’s a scarce resource that we cannot see or touch. Yet, without it, modern communication systems crumble. Our society, now accustomed to the ability to communicate across vast distances in an instant, is underpinned by the exploitation of an invisible but defined spectrum.

That spectrum is one which has enabled the rapid ascension of wireless networks as a means to transmit information. Each successive wireless generation has acted as a catalyst for the development of peripheral technologies, all of which converge into one singular ecosystem.

The next stepping stone to enable the growth of a new wireless ecosystem is 5G NR. Call it what you will: a buzzword flaunted to an agonising extent or an industry hype spiralling out of control. But, notwithstanding the latter, the reality is that commercialisation of 5G NR is a momentous breakthrough for the wireless industry.

Laying the groundwork for 5G NR with enhanced 4G LTE

The shift to 5G NR won’t be a swift undertaking for operators, and the 4G LTE networks that have facilitated an explosion in data traffic will continue to be an integral aspect of the mobile network experience moving forward. To that tune, 4G LTE networks are advancing on two important fronts: coverage availability and capacity.

By leveraging low-band spectrum such as 700MHz, operators can expand the reach of their networks in a cost-effective manner. This spectrum is of incredible value because it exhibits excellent propagation characteristics, with enhanced penetration of physical obstructions compared to existing bands such as 800MHz.

Progressively enhancing 4G LTE networks also concerns capacity, something which is under a constant state of strain as use cases become more demanding. Densification of the site grid, aggregation of multiple bands on each site and implementation of technologies including 256 QAM and Massive MIMO are the most significant strategies being pursued by operators.

Sub-6GHz for Pioneering 5G NR

The utilisation of sub-6GHz spectrum will mark the beginning of our journey to commercialise 5G NR. Meeting the three core use case requirements defined by the 3GPP, sub-6GHz 5G NR represents an equilibrium in which there is a balance between deployment cost and the resulting network performance.

Mid-band spectrum including that in the 2.5GHz and 3.6GHz bands is the pioneering medium for sub-6GHz 5G NR.

Deployment of sub-6GHz 5G NR atop existing multi-band macrosites in a Non-Standalone (NSA) approach is an imminent reality, blurring the divide between 4G LTE and 5G NR by dynamically switching between the two network architectures.

Ushering in Gigabit Wireless with mmWave

There is an ambitious vision within the industry to create gigabit-class wireless networks, a fascinating feat of connectivity that will propel society forward. It is mmWave spectrum which will enable this, introducing truly mind-boggling performance characteristics.

With tiny distances (aptly in millimetres) between peaks and valleys within the spectrum, there is an inherent ability to transmit large volumes of data at once. Pioneering 5G NR deployments will utilise mmWave bands such as 26, 28 and 42GHz for access use.

But, with unprecedented performance comes an unprecedented challenge, signal attenuation. MmWave spectrum is incredibly susceptible to atmospheric attenuation, with humidity absorbing signals and provoking a dramatic and rapid degradation in quality.

Traditionally, operators have relied upon the ability to provide competent indoor coverage with outdoor macrosites across a common public network. However, the inability of mmWave signals to penetrate walls will make it significantly more difficult to maintain Quality of Service (QoS) as customers transition between indoors and outdoors.

Backhaul is Ripe for a Revolution

To deliver a transformation in wireless with 5G NR, more than just the access network needs to undergo radical change. Remember, access networks are only as good as their transport solution, and that’s where a transition to fibre at the edge plays an instrumental role in facilitating next-generation use cases.

Without stating an obvious truth, the performance requirements of wireless networks are at an all-time high. This is a perfect precedent to support 5G NR - Passive Optical Networks (PONs) offer unparalleled performance while demanding low operational costs. Copper-based networks such as digital subscriber line (xDSL) have traditionally facilitated macrosite backhauling but, frankly, they don’t cut the mustard anymore.

Conclusion: 5G NR is a Step-Change

Every generational leap in wireless has brought with it new and transformative ways to communicate. With 2G (GSM), the world was introduced to mobile voice, an extraordinarily simple but powerful tool. In the 3G (UMTS) and 4G (LTE) era, data access on the go was born, allowing the smartphone to proliferate as a portable computer for consumption of on-demand content and instant video communication.

Now, the commercialisation of 5G NR looms, and for the first time, connectivity will be afforded to everything around us. Fibre at the edge will underpin 5G NR, acting as an unassailable backhaul solution for macrosites and small cells.

Posted on 19 Jun 2019.

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