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What to look out for at Mobile World Congress 2018

MWC 2017Like most analysts, my “dance card”/schedule is filling up with prearranged meetings, my inbox is filling up with press releases and my phone is ringing with calls about all sorts of new developments. If you plan to attend Mobile World Congress yourself, or just monitor remotely, here are a few high level areas to keep in mind from a Small Cell perspective.

Pre-Densification

I’ve conjured up this term to describe what operators are doing to postpone deploying small cells. They are squeezing every last drop out of their existing real-estate of existing cell sites. That means adding new frequencies, up to and including LAA at 5GHz; exploiting MIMO to an ever greater extent; combining multiple bands to achieve ever higher speeds using Carrier Aggregation.

With space (and weight) constraints limiting what can be installed on masts and poles, expect to see some fairly radical new antennas that can handle large numbers of frequency bands with MIMO. The popular press will likely emphasise the term “Gigabit LTE” because that’s what can now be achieved in the lab and under ideal conditions outside. Just ask whether these speeds can be achieved indoors without an inbuilding system.

5G

I’d hope we are moving from hype into a phase of commercial reality but I'm not yet convinced. From a technical viewpoint this will no doubt include practical demonstrations of high speed/low latency data links using the 5GNR New Radio in both the high frequency (millimeter wave) and lower frequency (sub 6GHz) bands.

Questions to drill through the hype are whether good performance (range, resilience, robustness) can be achieved without a substantial number of small cells. Inbuilding use will require some form of inbuilding antenna, as we heard from Huawei recently. The operation of high (~30GHz) and low (~3GHz) bands is radically different but easily confused.

From a commercial viewpoint, I’ve heard that some regulators and others are actively considering whether a single shared 5G nationwide network makes more sense than the independent network approach taken until now. Early adopters such as Verizon look to be initially using it for fixed wireless broadband service which would later evolve to full mobility. Elsewhere, network upgrades are being planned to make existing sites "5G ready".

Others may mask progress with marketing hype. Terms like “5G Evolution” aren’t anything to do with 5G at all as far as I’m concerned, but have been used to describe the 4G LTE service achieving Gigabit speeds using Carrier Aggregation and/or LAA above.

Multi-Technology

Small Cell products have often focussed on one generation and one frequency band. This helped keep the cost down, especially for the simplest residential applications. We are now seeing more flexibility, where products can handle a wider range of frequency bands or cope with multiple modes (2G, 3G and/or 4G). The major vendors have had software definable radios for years. Now we are seeing new entrants beginning to match that capability. Pioneers such as Parallel Wireless, ip.access and SpiderCloud all have multi-mode solutions.

Progress continues to mix and match DAS and Small Cell technology – we may see some further integration on this count for in-building solutions. I’ll be particularly interested in how LAA might be introduced, and how widely CBRS is covered. Both are primarily US initiatives today but could be applied elsewhere, subject to interest (LAA) and regulatory (CBRS) approval.

Planning and Management

Figuring out how to plan where and when to expand sites, introduce new small cells, allocate the huge range of frequency bands continues to increase in complexity. 5G will add yet another layer of cost with as yet unclear benefits.

I can see growing interest in automation and ever more clever planning and configuration tools to address that. It’s not happening nearly as quickly as I think is required, but we will soon get to a stage where those networks still operating manually will be at a growing disadvantage.

Applications

There are a huge number of IoT vendors already touting for attention. I’ve already picked out one or two of the more wacky ideas for special attention. I suspect than none on their own is significant enough to change the direction of travel for the industry overall, so I’ll be taking a wider view of their implications.

Other

I’ve heard some interesting ideas from in-building position finding/tracking to the latest developments in Wi-Fi technology. At such a large show, there are always surprises to find.

I’d especially encourage those attending primarily to meet at their own booth to allow enough time to walk the floor and soak up the wide range of technology on show. Personally, I tend not to spend much time at the main conference presentations which have become more bland/less controversial but pick out specific topics of interest.

By the way, the Small Cell Forum advises me that this year they won’t be running a series of short lectures as before, but will still have a booth in Hall 7.

See you next week, or if not, then read our show report published a few days later.

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