CWTEC: 5G, Massive MIMO and Satellites

CWlogoCambridge Wireless hold an annual event looking forward at wireless technology. This year focussed on three specific topics that are most likely to impact the industry over the coming 3-5 years. Speakers from operators, vendors and researchers outlined their vision for the future.


There was quite a contrast between Three (Erol Hepsaydir) and Vodafone (Antonella Faniuolo). It’s clear that Three focus on delivering lots and lots of data, viewing themselves more as a competitively priced datapipe than an all encompassing service provider. They’ve seen the predictions for ever increasing data consumption and aim to satisfy those, without necessarily needing to identify what the data would be used for.

Their current usage rates are over 10GByte/month per customer (3.5x more than the industry average) serving 10 million customers in the UK. They offer very good value, with unlimited data/voice/text including roaming to 71 countries for £20/month. What’s more is that there is no premium for 5G. 

Three Traffic Growth Forecast

They plan to use 5G to increase capacity at their busiest sites while also reducing cost. They also plan to introduce wireless only home broadband service, bypassing the need for wireline or fibre to the home, using this same 5G network, with a forecast of 90GB/month/user by 2025. Three aquired UK Broadband in 2017 for £300 million (approx US$375m) which provides a  fixed wireless service to 17,000 subscribers mainly in London branded as Relish, giving them additional rights to 40MHz of 3.5GHz spectrum that is mostly supported by standard 5G kit.

Unlike Verizon, they don’t show any interest in mmWave and would do this entirely in their 3.5GHz spectrum of up to 140MHz. They’ll make full use of Massive MIMO. Launched earlier in 2019, the initial rollout will upgrade 6,000 cellsites, serving 80% of Three’s traffic in major urban areas. 21 data centres host a distributed core network to reduce latency. Dark fibre is being leased from SSE (an electricity utility).

Three 5G Technology Strategy

Vodafone’s presentation positions the operator at a higher service level, outlining a journey towards a transparent network that creates social value, with new services, new business models and a new business culture. Their 5G launch has some eye-catching demos of a Haptic Suit (which relays the full force of a rugby tackle from one person to another), online gaming and other services. Use cases include remote surgery, smart cities, augmented reality and drones.

Technical developments include network transformation, edge computing and Cloud. I sensed that Vodafone hasn’t quite yet got it’s network management/back office systems sorted yet for 4G and is using the 5G initiative to catch up.

Vodafone 5G Journey

Other 5G presentations included Massive MIMO by Cambridge Consultants. Christian Farrow of Chronos explained that 5G timing and sync will be more critical at the network edge, especially where more active components are located on outdoor masts and exposed to wider range of temperatures and weather conditions. Sitetracker manage physical equipment inventory, with clients such as Verizon tracking 200,000 sites and up to 2 million updates/week. I asked how inventory tracking will need to expand to handle software licences and virtual assets such as software licences and virtual machines. Clearly this will have a huge impact on network management and capacity management in the future.

5G Sync Architecture

As an exercise, I compared the 5G pricing on offer from the four UK networks today. All based on 12-month SIM only deals with unlimited minutes/text/data

  • EE             £44
  • Vodafone  £30
  • Three        £20
  • O2            £35 (4G price. O2 intends to launch 5G in October with 5G prices not yet announced.)

£1 = US$1.25 at current rates.


Zahid Ghadialy of Parallel Wireless outlined the progress of the OpenRAN initiative. He’s quite clear that this is NOT opensource or free software, but about open interfaces with full interoperability between different vendors. The idea is to avoid vendor lock-in, promote innovation, competition leading to cost reduction and reduced time to market. OpenRAN is part of the Telecom Infra Project, which holds its next summit in Amsterdam in November.

OpenRAN also applies to 2G and 3G, not just 4G and 5G. Off the shelf hardware can be used for BBU (Baseband processing) with more specialist hardware for the RRU (radio). Networks could theoretically mix BBUs and RRUs from different vendors (hardware and software) in their networks, upgrading and changing as required. I would imagine that large scale networks would prefer to limit themselves to a smaller number of options for simplicity of management.

OpenRAN is distinct from O-RAN Alliance (a merger of C-RAN and X-RAN) which has a wide membership but notably excludes both Huawei and Parallel Wireless. 

OpenRAN Disaggregation


System integrator CGI uses satellite services to deliver a wide variety of applications for their customers around the world. The key benefit is that satellite services are available virtually anywhere on the planet. Jaime Reed explained the differences between geostationary and low earth orbiting constellations, with the latter offering much lower latency and higher capacity.

We are likely to see a step change in satellite service capability and pricing over the next 3-5 years as these new LEO services are launched. Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink plans up to 12,000 satellites, of which the first 60 were launched in May 2019 (and 57 worked). The plan is for 1,000 to 2,000 to be added annually, 60 at a time. The picture below is a rack of 60 satellites payload sitting inside a Falcon rocket fairing.

SpaceX 60 Satellites

Price comparison is still much cheaper for fibre where it is available: Satellite VHTS breaks even around $5K/Gbps/Month vs 0.5 to 1K/Gbps/month for rural fibre in the UK. That could change dramatically in a few years time.

Around 1% of cellsites are connected via satellite today.

Beyond 5G

Several speakers discussed what comes next. Mathew Baker of Nokia outlined the very long term plans of 3GPP, with release 15 today continuing through to Release 24 many years hence. IoT will feature prominently in Release 16 and 17.

Interdigital believes there is still a lot of work to do with 5G, perfecting and enhancing it to match market needs. Don’t expect to see anything happening until 2030.

Dean Bubley considered the growing implications of climate change, suggesting that overall energy levels might be imposed on network operations in the future. He also expected many more sensors to be integrated into basestations in the future, not just co-locating video cameras with streetpole mounted small cells. AI will increasingly be used to predict usage rather than simply react and respond to demand.


Cutting through the hype, I envisage 5G primarily offers higher speeds and greater capacity primarily through the additional spectrum at 3.5GHz. UK consumers can choose to pay more if they are heavy data users but there will be strong competition to keep prices down.

There was relatively little said about the need for large numbers of small cells to dramatically increase capacity, especially indoors. I believe networks will continue to rely on 4G for that, perhaps encouraging more inbuilding 4G (rather than 5G) using small cells.

There seems very little appetite for millimetre–wave 5G in Europe and so far non in the UK. It will be focussed on the newly assigned 3.5GHz bands for some years.

Initial deployments will be outdoors, make use of Massive MIMO.

Satellite may be used for backhaul in remote/rural areas, but will need to wait a few years before the costs reduce to make it worthwhile deploying the full potential of 5G.

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