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Pruning the cell tower in advance of 5G and replacing multiple antenna systems with a single unit

crowded cell tower

via Flickr © Gary Lerude (CC BY-ND 2.0)

  • Deep pockets, short arms: operators not minded to increase capital spend for 5G
  • Instead will  embrace  virtualized RAN, hyper-densification and Massive MIMO antenna arrays
  • All to be used in 4G before 5G arrives

According to Rethink Technology Research, which has just published a study on the radio access network’s journey to 5G, operators are looking to spend about half of what they spent on their 4G roll out during the early years of 5G.

If that’s a surprise, it shouldn’t be. Despite all the noise about 5G costs it’s been clear for some time that operators are going to ease their way from 4G to 5G in as painless a way (capital cost-wise) as possible.

Rethink’s report, for instance, explains why 5G “will follow a very different pattern to that of 3G and 4G in terms of architecture and regional patterns. It will not be a capex windfall for the vendors – operators will prioritize coexistence with 4G and architecture to prolong the life of existing investments.”

Hence the fuss a year ago at Mobile World Congress (almost an insurrection as we wrote at the time) over the arrival of the ‘non-standalone’ NR (new radio) specification. Operators and vendors wanted that technical spec to be pushed through faster so that operators could start adding NR to their LTE networks without having to support a 5G core immediately.

“The reason behind all of this,” says Rethink of the general telco approach to 5G, “is all to do with the new network architectures operators will embrace, such as virtualized RAN and hyper-densification, as well as Massive MIMO antenna arrays, all of which will be used in 4G before 5G arrives.”

Which is why in the prelude to MWC this year we’re getting a good view of the sorts of infrastructure and software offerings required for that 4G/5G approach. Guy Daniels’ story today highlights how Ericsson is tackling things by giving operators an ability to run 4G and 5G together, with side-by-side carriers in the same band, while Blue Danube Systems, for example, is today introducing a 5G-ready Massive MIMO system, the BeamCraft 600 series.

Massively MIMO

Blue Danube claims it’s the first Massive MIMO kit to support 2G, 3G, LTE and 5G from a single antenna. So it should enable operators to use existing spectrum by replacing multiple radio and antenna systems with a single unit. That, it claims, could reduce on-site equipment by as much as 66 per cent.

At the same time it doesn’t need any work done at the cell sites and today’s smartphone will continue to work as usual. It will also allow operators “to gain immediate capacity gains by directing radio frequency (RF) beams to areas where mobile traffic is high,” the company claims.

“With FDD representing at least 85 per cent of the global commercial networks, mid band FDD Massive MIMO solutions will be critical as operators transition to 5G.” said Julian Bright, analyst at Ovum. “The vast majority of the world’s leading operators have multiple 3G and 4G LTE bands in this frequency range. Blue Danube’s multi-band solution offers a compelling upgrade option for current networks, unlocking the potential of operators’ most valuable FDD spectrum asset.”

Technical stuff

It’s based on HDAAS, Hybrid Massive MIMO technology. The 96-element BeamCraft 600 supports up to two active mid bands using 16 software configurable beams. An integrated passive low-band option is also available to further conserve antenna mount positions. Blue Danube has deployed active solutions in 3 mid bands to date (AWS, PCS, DCS) and will trial the multi-band BeamCraft 600 in 2Q’18. Additional products supporting higher frequency bands including TDD will be available in the second half of 2018.

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