Learn what 5G mmWave is, the potential benefit it holds for improving the mobile ecosystem, and some of the roadblocks that stall implementation.
5G Millimeter wave (mmWave) refers to a radio spectrum that ranges between 30 GHz and 300 GHz – which are frequencies previously not utilized outside military and aerospace use cases. As more and more people use connected devices and organizations deploy more Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, traditional radio frequencies (usually between 3 GHz and 6 GHz) have gotten too congested. The benefit of 5G mmWave technology is that by migrating to less crowded spectrums, enterprises are provided with a huge upgrade to their networks in terms of speed and reliability. In data-intense use cases - such as Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs), fleet management, and metaverse workplace collaboration – 5G mmWave is destined to be the go-to solution. Great potential also exists with Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), wireless backhauling, video surveillance, private indoor networks, and crowded venues.
Currently, there are 140 operators across the globe that have invested in 5G mmWave – in the form of trials, license acquisition, deployment plans, and commercial launches. Outside the United States, 5G mmWave is still very rare, making it difficult to justify investment for many operators. Some of the main challenges that surround 5G mmWave include spectrum scarcity, difficulty with physical barriers (walls), high deployment costs, a limited number of compatible devices (outside the U.S. market), and a lack of use cases.
Despite some of the downsides to 5g mmWave, there is too much potential to pass up and numerous projects are underway around the world. 5G mmWave provides mobile operators with a competitive advantage to address the significant increase in user data demand and to expand 5G into many new industrial applications. Support from companies across the ecosystem further demonstrates the global scale and maturity of 5G mmWave. Global mobile industry leaders are keen to build upon the current 5G mmWave momentum and expand the role of mobile ecosystem in supporting economic development in many industries.
Activities on 5G mmWave Across Different Regions
5G mmWave has been active for some time in the United States, with all major operators (Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile) having launched 5G networks in mmWave. By far, Verizon is the U.S. leader when it comes to 5G mmWave services as it's available across 80+ cities. Despite the cellular industry and Verizon having spent years pushing the fastest form of 5G, mobile users in the United States still struggle to connect to mmWave networks. In one 90-day test period in 2021, it was shown that Verizon users were able to connect to 5G mmWave 0.8% of the time, while T-Mobile and AT&T users connected 0.5% of the time. AT&T announced its 5G mmWave network is available in parts of 40 U.S. cities and more than 40 stadiums and venues. AT&T 5G mmWave will also be supported in 25 U.S. airports by the end of 2022. Meanwhile, T-Mobile has scaled down its 5G mmWave ambitions and will only invest there the company sees it being necessary.
In Japan, all operators (NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, Rakuten, and SoftBank) have also offered commercial 5G mmWave. The rollout in Japan is considered to be successful, the number of mmWave base stations in the country has tripled to over 8000 from September 2020 to March 2021, representing 45% of the total 5G base stations, and this figure is expected to increase significantly by 2025. In South Korea, the ICT ministry recently announced that it would work with three major carriers, SK Telecom, KT, and LG Uplus, as well as Seoul Metro, to test 5G mmWave in Seoul subways. One such test involved a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the company’s 5G Compact Macro unit – the test resulted in 25X faster speeds than the typical 71 Mbps that Seoul Metro achieves. The tests intend to encourage more investment from mobile operators to improve 5G services. Despite operators’ ongoing effort to rapidly extend network coverage, they are reluctant to commercialize 5G mmWave due to a lack of services that can fully utilize the super-fast speeds that the technology can offer. 5G mmWave is also commercially available in Singapore (SingTel) and Australia (Telstra).
Some countries are seeking to deploy 5G mmWave in the near future. South Korea aims for nationwide coverage of 5G networks by the end of 2022. China deployed 5G mmWave for the Winter Olympics in early 2022, with China Unicom being the only operator partner. China Unicom is collaborating with Qualcomm, ZTE, and GSMA to showcase rich applications enabled by 5G mmWave and is committed to advancing the maturity of 5G technology. The trials in the Winter Olympics scenarios aim to help the mobile industry speed up the commercialization of 5G mmWave in China and achieve the full potential of 5G. Not long ago, India finally allocated spectrum for 5G trials including with mmWave band to the telecoms. All its operators (i.e., Airtel, Vi, Jio) now proceed with chosen partners to start preparing relevant use cases. However, commercial 5G rollout is far from a guarantee given the controversy over whether mmWave is even needed in India.
So far, 5G mmWave is yet to reach most of Europe. Italy is the only European country with a 5G mmWave network, with FastWeb offering commercial FWA to as much as 45% of the country's population (12 million homes) by 2024. Finland has been seriously ramping up its efforts by testing out this latest mobile technology. At a Finnish 5G base station operating in the 26 GHz spectrum, Telia delivered 4.1 Gigabits per second (Gbps) of downlink speed, 200 Megabits per second (Mbps) of uplink speed, and sub-10 Milliseconds (ms) latency. Other recent tests from Nokia, Elisa, and Qualcomm have demonstrated even faster speeds - 8 Gbps uplink speed and 2.1 Gbps downlink speed. It is promising to see almost half of the EU countries and the UK have either allocated mmWave spectrum for 5G or soon planning to do so. For example, the United Kingdom is working with Qualcomm on 5G mmWave trials, specifically in robotic farming. Besides Italy, Finland, and the UK, the 5G mmWave spectrum is assigned/available in Denmark, Greece, Russia, Slovenia, Germany, and recently, France saw its first outdoor test. Outside of the United States, many manufacturers still ship devices without 5G mmWave antennas, hence, it will be interesting to see what devices will support 5G mmWave within Europe in the coming years.
Why is 5G mmWave Slower Than Expected and When Will it be Available?
It is particularly exciting to see mobile industry leaders across multiple regions unite to expand 5G mmWave momentum, but getting into action requires mobile operators to consider their approach to connecting 5G high band compatible devices, along with practical deployment strategies. The next generation of wireless hasn’t been deployed as quickly as expected, partially because 5G networks require new technology and equipment that often postpones the deployment process. Installing new equipment for 5G can be a lengthy process as it involves finding a suitable site, getting a permit, and getting roadworks done for deploying the necessary cables to transmit data to and from cell towers. Moreover, the substantial amount of time for cellular networks to be “5G ready” and the COVID-19 may have contributed to the delay to some extent. Meanwhile, the equipment availability is a major drag on deployment. There were a dozen companies during 4G’s debut and there are only five main providers for 5G (Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Huawei, and ZTE). With various countries excluding the two Chinese suppliers from their list, it certainly creates more chaos. Ericsson is a top alternative as its new massive MIMO 5G equipment helps deliver 5G on existing towers easier, but its transmitters require computer chips, and the semiconductor industry is facing a supply shortage.
There is also a lack of killer apps to trigger 5G demand and drive adoption. It has been reported that telecoms were disappointed with their return on investment in 4G networks, they are more cautious this time. 5G mmWave promises faster speeds, supports a large number of simultaneous connections, and enables faster response time, but no revenue models have been associated with those three components. With telecom companies spending billions of dollars on capital investment for 5G, they may not accelerate build-out efforts until 5G-related revenue becomes clearer. There have been doubts on whether telecoms can really absorb the cost of installing the necessary infrastructure for a full mmWave network.
In the US, 120+ commercially available devices support 5G mmWave, but it could be until the end of 2023 to see two-thirds of its population be covered with a 5G service that is considerably better than what is currently on 4G. With everybody committed to achieving the full potential of 5G, the global deployment of 5G mmWave is inevitable, perhaps still a few years away before it is completely available.