A Whole New World! But Not What You Think

March 6, 2023

Written by Alex Lawrence

News at MWC last week was largely built around major companies within the ecosystem, unsurprisingly. However, as long as the means for monetising 5G in substantial ways are proving elusive for mobile operators the business case for major new investments needs to be compelling.

Look under the surface, though, and there are quite a few less well-known businesses which look set to help the operators build revenues with relatively little up-front cost. While not flashy, these can individually assist in making the business case for further investment and innovation, while in total they offer prototypes for the kind of growth and development models which the NGMN laid out recently in their requirements for 6G.

Dave Sumi, Airvine’s CTO, is enthusiastic about a product that really doesn’t feel like an innovation at all.

“It’s one of those things you look at and think ‘Aren’t people doing this already? It just seems obvious,’” Sumi observed. “But no, this is unique on the market.”

While mmWave has taken off in some environments for fixed-wireless access, Airvine is using it for different purposes. The company offers mmWave units as backhaul for large in-building deployments: blocks of apartments, business centres, airports and the like. Instead of running cables, the units automatically find and connect narrow beams point-to-point with the best available link.

The terms ‘best available link’ and ‘indoors’ don’t usually tie in with mmWave, a spectrum band that struggles to connect out of line-of-sight due to its poor penetration of materials. Is it really the way to go indoors?

“What we were able to do was get this to go non-line-of-sight, and with the ability to do beam steering around corners, now you’ve started to address that main drawback,” Sumi explained. “We don’t go through every wall, but we go through sheetrock, wood, and glass pretty well.”

In other words, by setting up the mmWave units at points that avoid going through critical supporting walls the solution can work quite effectively. In a large building that may mean setting up units along corridors, up stairwells and so on – all points where there is typically an easy access to electricity.

Software Fixation

Different countries’ regulatory environments mandate how much mmWave spectrum is available to create the backhaul links. However, the capacity is similar in many cases to fibre. This opens up the possibility of retrofitting older buildings that would be uneconomical to fit out with fibre cables.

Fixed wireless was an opportunity which also came up in conversation with Cohere Wireless’ Art King. The company has been active for several years now, most recently promoting the OTFS waveform. However, the company first took off by developing a software solution (USM) to allow antennas to re-use the same spectrum in different locations. In itself this reduced the need for upgrading antennas or buying more spectrum to increase capacity, but they have been working on new tweaks and uses lately.

“People on the RAN side are saying you can only sell a certain amount of fixed wireless into a sector before we have to stop deployment because the cell doesn’t have enough capacity to actually handle the fixed wireless at night,” King noted.

The reason is simply that, for many consumer deployments of fixed wireless, users tend to consume much more bandwidth in the evening to watch streaming TV or enjoy gaming at home. Accordingly the evening consumption has tended to set the upper bar for how many homes can be connected in this way.

“The USM also gives us extra peak capacity to service new applications like fixed wireless that leverage a mobile network, but off hours for more static applications compared to the mobility that it handles during the day,” King explained.

In other words, the software can be used to divert capacity away from mobile broadband to fixed wireless (or other) services when it’s needed, changing the calculations around the number of homes covered and altering the economics of fixed wireless backhaul.   

This is one example of the kind of xApps and rApps that are coming to market. It’s encouraging to see this innovation in the 5G arena, something which is liable to only develop further as 5G usage spreads into other areas such as different enterprise environments.

Aglocell, founded by serial entrepreneur Bruce Peterson, is also an rApp developer. In their case, they are focussing on a range of AI-based optimisations that will improve performance particularly for the worst-served, for example at the cell edge. Interestingly, they also link back the rApps to the proprietary 4G network, enabling performance boosts to the 4G RAN as well 5G.  

 “We’ve been able to drive 10% more capacity into the network just with these optimisations,” Peterson noted. “More like 16% for the worst served. This gives the 4G network a longer lifespan and helps reduce the cost of investment”.

All the examples above are designed to work today in a 5G environment, improving the opportunities for reducing the demand for, and cost of, new infrastructure builds. It is an encouraging sign that a market is building up in response to the financial challenges operators face today. Despite the hype that goes towards services such as drones, XR and more, much will hinge on the growth of a market in which such developers can thrive. In turn, the growth of services and applications like those above creates a virtuous circle in which the deployment of 5G and 5G-Advanced becomes much more economically justifiable in areas where it hasn’t already been rolled out. Ultimately, this will pave the way for a flexible, software-based set of capability upgrades to 6G.

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