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MWC Shanghai: Qualcomm shows off 5G prototype

As real standards come closer, the chip giant needs to be in the forefront of trials, and now has a sub-6 GHz platform as well as millimeter wave

The operator trials are mounting up and the 3GPP process is under way – precise 5G standards are still a matter of guesswork, but the guesses are getting more reality-based and the key vendors are showing off increasingly detailed prototypes. They will be showcasing these at two 5G-focused events this week, on opposite sides of the world – Mobile World Congress Shanghai and London’s 5G World.

Qualcomm is always at the heart of next generation prototyping – and it needs to be. Much of its success has relied on its intimacy, at the pre-commercial stage, with the operators which will make the first big buying decisions for a new generation of kit and devices. It invests heavily in early stage R&D and trials to stay at the cutting edge – where challengers like MediaTek are not yet quite joining it – as well as building its IPR assets and its influence on standards.

In Shanghai, the company said it will demonstrate its 5G New Radio (NR) prototype system and trial platform. This is for conventional sub-6 GHz cellular bands – It is optimized for bands between 3 GHz and 5 GHz, which are capacity-oriented bands. Despite the sound and fury about millimeter wave, the first wave of standards and deployments are likely to be in these areas of the spectrum. The exception is likely to be the US 28 GHz band, where Qualcomm has already shown a prototype.

Dense small cell networks in 28 GHz or above may enable the most radical new business cases in future with massive flexible capacity, but it will be technically challenging to have them fully commercial by 2020 – at that stage, most early movers will follow the familiar pattern of focusing on coverage and on boosting the performance of established services like 4K video streaming. That will almost certainly mean sticking to an air interface based on well-understood OFDM, whereas some companies, including Qualcomm itself, are advocating a different technology for some of the emerging use cases, such as millimeter wave networks and ultra-low latency M2M.

“Utilizing spectrum bands below 6 GHz is a critical part of allowing for flexible deployments with ubiquitous network coverage and a wide range of use cases,” said Qualcomm in its statement.

Its 5G NR is OFDM-based and it will push its prototype designs into the 3GPP process. The timing is critical – the 3GPP has been hearing proposals for 5G air interfaces since April and will start making its shortlist early next year, aiming to achieve a consensus solution by the end of 2017.

Qualcomm’s NR will also “closely track 3GPP progress” to adapt to changes as they emerge and to “help achieve timely 5G NR trials with mobile operators, infrastructure vendors, and other industry players, as well as future 5G NR commercial network launches”. The 3GPP has already begun its 5G NR study item as part of Release 14 and that will feed into work for Release 15, the first true 5G iteration. “We are tracking 3GPP and as it makes decisions new features will come into the prototype,” said John Smee, VP of engineering for corporate R&D at Qualcomm.

The US firm’s 5G NR prototype consists of a base station and user equipment (UE), serving as a testbed for verifying next generation capabilities. It supports wide bands of over 100 MHz to enable data rates above 3Gbps, and a new integrated subframe design to reduce latency to one millisecond.

It is pointedly multi-technology. Even as Qualcomm aggressively pushes an LTE-based solution for low power wide area M2M networks – NB-IoT, which was just standardized by the 3GPP – it knows that 5G is likely to be more flexible.

“The 5G NR prototype further demonstrates our leadership in developing a unified, more capable 5G air interface, building upon our long standing expertise in delivering OFDM chips and technology with LTE and WiFi,” said CTO Matt Grob in a statement. China Mobile will be the operator partner in the Shanghai demo.

Ericsson will be showing off its own prototypes, and its recently announced ‘5G Plug-Ins’ in Shanghai. It already has a 5G radio testbed and radio prototypes deployed in field trials in Japan, Korea, Sweden and the US and has hit 25Gbps data rates in some tests (in ideal conditions).

Meanwhile, back with 4G, the 3GPP has finished its work on the NB-IoT specifications for wide area M2M applications, and early movers like Vodafone plan commercial deployments from next year. NB-IoT is one of three standards included in Release 13, or LTE-Advanced Pro, which focus on low power M2M applications. The others are

extended coverage GSM IoT (EC-GSM-IoT) for enhancing 2G networks, and LTE Cat-M1 (formerly MTC) for device modems. The NB-IoT device modem was formerly called Cat-M2 but will now be renamed Cat-NB1. The latter is specified at a maximum data rate of 200Kbps in 200 MHz channels but is more likely to be used at an average of 40Kbps, while Cat-M1 delivers up to 1Mbps for somewhat less power-sensitive apps.

Chip providers like Sequans and Qualcomm say they will support the new specs with firmware upgrades for existing Cat-1 or Cat-M1 chips. However, special optimized chips are likely to emerge from next year if there is sufficient operator demand and levels of network upgrades to support NB-IoT. Cat-NB1 can be used with either 2G or 4G spectrum.

For those wanting an antidote to 5G hype, a senior analyst from New Street Research provided some cold water at an event in Sydney last week, hosted by Australian regulator ACMA. Andrew Entwistle warned that, despite 5G’s potential to deliver ultrafast data rates, its economic viability was still in question because it is only expected to operate in parallel with earlier technologies and not replace them. That might be considered an economic improvement on the 3G-to-4G leap, but Entwistle also argued that 5G’s capability to provide outdoor to indoor service is “almost terminally poor” – an issue which will need to be addressed with further densification and indoor networks.

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