5G mmWave Large-Scale Rollout: IDTechEx Discusses If and When


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5G has two new frequency bands: sub-6 GHz (3.5 – 7 GHz) and mmWave (>24 GHz). 5G sub-6 GHz, with a frequency relatively close to the 4G frequency range, does not receive as much attention as the other new frequency band – mmWave. mmWave, which was previously solely used for military, satellite, and automotive radar communication purposes, is now added to the frequency pool for mobile communications, offering a maximum data rate of 20 Gbps with an ultralow latency of 1 ms due to its ultrawide bandwidth. However, even though there has been a lot of buzz surrounding mmWave, has this technology been extensively adopted? What are the pain points in the mmWave industry? What are its prospects for the future?

Let's start with 5G rollout for mobile consumer networks in five important regions (the United States, China, Europe, South Korea, and Japan). As of August 2021, only Verizon in the United States has committed to deploying mmWave for large-scaled mobile consumer networks (*Note that after Verizon acquired some of the sub-6 GHz frequency band in early 2021, they are now shifting focus to build 5G rollout on this frequency band). For the rest, local telecom operators develop mobile consumer networks primarily in the low/mid-band (formerly 4G frequency re-farmed to 5G) and/or sub-6 GHz spectrum. This is reasonable since, to create a cost-effective network, the goal is to have as much coverage as possible with as few base stations as possible installed. Because mmWave propagation distances are significantly shorter, the potential density of 5G mmWave stations will be around ten times that of 4G low-mid band (freq. around 2 GHz) base stations to cover the same region. When it comes to 5G national and wider city coverage, IDTechEx believes that the low/mid-band and sub-6 GHz bands will continue to be the most popular choices for most telecom operators. mmWave band, on the other hand, will be predominantly utilized for data-showering hotspots such as packed stadiums for the real-time streaming and uploading of 4K/8K videos.

One key emerging subject in mmWave applications is fixed wireless access (FWA), which uses mobile communications for broadband at home. The awareness is there that fiber deployment is costly and requires days of labor to construct. As a result, installing mmWave base stations to replace "fiber to home" broadband is an excellent alternative, particularly in nations where fiber expansion is limited such as the United States, the United Kingdom, South America, Africa, etc. In China, the fiber broadband availability is already above 64% back in 2016. South Korea and Japan have almost 100% of fiber broadband availability as of 2021. As a result, IDTechEx expect mmWave for FWA rollout may gain traction in such fiber-limited countries. It should be noted that lower frequency bands, such as the sub-6 GHz frequency range, can also be used for broadband purposes. It is not necessary that the local telecom operator use mmWave for broadband services. For example, in Peru and the Philippines, operators have chosen the sub-6 GHz frequency band for 5G FWA rollout.

Now let's discuss 5G for enterprise (business-to-business, B2B) networks. For example, in Industry 4.0, is mmWave the primary network component? According to IDTechEx's "5G Small Cells 2021-2031: Technologies, Markets, Forecasts" research, the answer is no. Indeed, mmWave is intended for applications requiring ultra-low latency, such as remote surgery; nevertheless, use cases requiring multi-connectivity will most likely be supported by sub-6 GHz. To IDTechEx's best knowledge, sub-6 GHz is the most preferred choice for many smart factories embracing 5G technology when compared to mmWave. The proportion of enterprise network deployment between sub-6 GHz and mmWave in such settings is projected to be around 80~90% vs 10~20%, respectively, at least in the next 5 – 6 years.

So, will the time of mmWave come? According to IDTechEx, the answer is yes, though there are still many years to come. Some of the contributing factors that impact the deployment pipeline are listed below: 1. COVID – 19 impacts. COVID-19 pushes people away from the areas where mmWave rollout is best suited such as sports stadiums and airports! Though thanks to the vaccines, people's lives are gradually returning to normal in certain developed countries, there is still a long way to go before the world returns to where it was (if that will happen). 2. The search for killer apps. What are the applications that can only be supported by mmWave? Both remote surgery and autonomy are unquestionably the key applications, but there are still many years to come before our society will fully embrace such technologies. IDTechEx believes that a killer app must appear to drive the demand for mmWave to bloom.

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