The wireless industry is closely watching what’s happening with 5G innovation. Every day, announcements trumpet new technology breakthroughs and industry firsts, and the promise that 5G wireless networks are “coming soon”—in some cases as soon as 2019. The investment is huge; IHS Markit says the industry will spend $2.4 trillion globally on 5G networks between 2020 and 2030.
In the race to deliver best-in-class 5G solutions, antennas are emerging as the critical link. The demand for higher throughput required by 5G networks means that 5G antennas will require not only a larger volume of antennas, but more efficient use of spectrum from each. As device and equipment requirements emerge, 5G antennas size is also shrinking.
5G will enable an era of connectivity like never before—well beyond the levels 4G technologies can achieve, with speeds up to 10 times faster than 4G and the ability to connect an increasing number of users. Even more importantly, 5G will be reliable, enabling not just speedy downloads and amazing video quality for capacity-hungry applications, but also the next generation of smart and Internet of Things (IoT) devices and applications that demand ultra-low latency, always-on connectivity. 4G has been able to deliver this in certain conditions; 5G will be able to deliver it consistently, even in crowded downtown areas or sports stadiums where 4G networks have struggled to keep pace with demand.
5G networks need to be able to scale quickly to support demand, with flexible antenna solutions to accommodate different spectrum requirements and use cases as they emerge. The GSMA has indicated that for 5G to succeed, it needs spectrum within three key frequency ranges:
- Sub-1 GHz, to support widespread coverage across urban, suburban and rural areas and help support IoT services.
- 1-6 GHz, which offers a good mixture of coverage and capacity benefits.
- Above 6 GHz, which is required to meet the ultra-high broadband speeds envisioned for 5G. GSMA expects the focus will be on bands above 24 GHz, and sees growing interest in the 24 GHz and/or 28 GHz bands, which might be able to be implemented together in a single device.
Just as an array of frequencies will be required to deliver a robust 5G experience, so too will a wealth of technologies be needed to work together. One of those is massive MIMO, which is emerging as a fundamental part of next-generation 5G systems. Massive MIMO enables the use of more radio data streams in the same area, at the same frequency. That means a dramatic rise in the number of users who can be serviced in a given area by a single base station.
Massive MIMO’s high spectrum efficiency—how much data can be transmitted to a given number of users per second—makes it a very attractive choice for 5G. However, by increasing the number of antennas used at the base station (typically 64/128/256 or more antennas for multi-user massive MIMO), and the number of users in motion, the potential for interference also rises, which is why 5G base stations must incorporate beamforming to address multiple moving users at the same time. In massive MIMO, multiple beams can be individually steered to offer higher throughput and coverage, while mitigating co-channel interference. The massive MIMO technology enables beamforming to address multiple moving users at the same time.
The biggest opportunity for 5G antenna technology will likely be a combination of sub-6 GHz antenna systems and millimeter wave antenna systems, working just below 30 GHz and also from 30 GHz to 77 GHz, to provide ubiquitous capacity and coverage for networks of the future. There is particular emphasis from a hardware and network deployment viewpoint on 28 GHz.
The C band can offer a good compromise for range vs. coverage for multi-user massive MIMO beamforming antenna technology. Digital beamforming can be incorporated in the base band processor of the radios connected to each of the individual antennas.
5G antennas have to be ahead of the technology curve, so to speak, so that companies can test technologies in real-world conditions both in the lab and in pilot programs. The 5G communications hardware market needs more precision, quality and engineering support than ever before, as well as repeatable scenarios to test the feasibility of solutions under a range of different circumstances. For a massive MIMO radio deployment, the setup might include a software-defined radio connected to a massive MIMO antenna configured with a panels and ground plane extensions. This would be consistent with a massive MIMO base station or access point in a point-to-multipoint radio system such as cellular or Wi-Fi. Lab and field trials of massive MIMO are ongoing, and companies are testing out new ways to help operators to scale quickly to meet the speed and capacity demands of 5G.
Precision engineering is also important—as the size of antennas shrink, so too does the margin for error. Dimensions of the antenna itself and its placement on a PCB are critical; the tolerance is nanometers. Even small errors can disrupt the antenna’s ability to function properly. Antenna manufacturers can help vendors and operators properly select, place and configure antennas to help speed time to market.
The industry is beginning to close in on a 5G timeline, and is crystalizing around the idea of several technologies such as massive MIMO, beamforming and millimeter wave technology working in harmony to offer a seamless user experience. Regardless of whether 5G becomes reality in 2018, 2019 or 2020, the industry will require precision antennas to deliver a home run.
Dermot O’Shea, co-founder and joint CEO of Taoglas, is a seasoned IoT entrepreneur, with more than 15 years’ experience in the global electronics industry spread over roles in Europe, Asia and North America. He is recognized as an expert in the antenna and wireless business. O’Shea currently serves as Joint CEO of Taoglas Group and president of Taoglas USA – aleading machine-to-machine/IoT antenna solutions provider. O’Shea co-founded Taoglas with Ronan Quinlan in 2003.