5G at CES – why millimetre wave fixed wireless access will dominate in 2018

CES kicks off next week and the pace at which the 5G evolution is happening means we’re sure it will be a key theme at the show – especially the fixed-wireless access space! This obviously won’t be the first year that 5G has been a key CES topic. 5G trials are well underway and billions have been committed to acquire licensed spectrum. Gigabit speeds have already been demonstrated. But so much has changed since 2017 it’s worth a look back before a look forward.

Qualcomm’s CEO Stephen Mollenkopf at CES 2017 said, “5G is so much more than faster 4K Netflix streaming on your phone… so what will it actually achieve? What will we get? Live-streaming VR, autonomous cars that respond to real-time conditions, and connected cities where everything from the houses to the street lamps talk to each other.” As for it’s economic potential, a Qualcomm survey predicted a broad range of industries supported by 5G could produce up to $12 trillion worth of goods and services. Ericsson’s CTO Ulf Ewaldsson said in his CES keynote that “5G is the greatest opportunity our industry has ever experienced. It will provide a platform for operators to address new markets, such as media, transportation and manufacturing.” This is all very much the same today as it was then…

Fig 1: Proportions of mobile subscribers with 5,4,3 & 2G in Western Europe, North America and rest of the World – extrapolated from Ericsson’s June 2017 Mobility Report


So…what has actually changed? First off – at CES many called for a united approach where collaboration is key. “This important 5G standard-based trial collaboration will demonstrate compliance to 3GPP and support the accelerated commercialization of the global 3GPP 5G standard.” Ewaldsson

There are now two major competing standards – Verizon’s pre-5G and 3GPP’s 5G New Radio, with many in the industry drawing parallels with 3G’s launch and NTT DoCoMo’s alternative 3G standard, and the numerous issues that caused. Verizon has adopted the pre-5G specification for its trials. However, 5G NR is starting to build up a head of steam, with the 3GPP’s release 15 taking place in December. Several are committing to it – from San Marino (set to be the first nation to have nationwide coverage) to Verizon itself (October saw a joint release between Verizon, Qualcomm and Novatel, collaborating on “trials and wide-scale commercial deployment of 5G NR mmWave technology”). Therefore, Verizon and Qualcomm will make for interesting keynotes at the show.

Road maps

Also changed, is the way it will roll-out. For many at CES 2017, the rollout of 5G would have been predicted to start with the sub-millimetre-wave bands (particularly 3.5 GHz) with an organic move towards the higher-speed licensed bands such as the 28 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz and the ultra-high-speed unlicensed bands, notably the 60 GHz band, with its 14 GHz of bandwidth.

Verizon announced at Mobile World Congress that it would be running fixed-wireless access trials during the second half of 2017, using the 28 GHz spectrum. These trials revealed that the technology can “deliver service in a non-line-of-sight environment” and to tall buildings, even “higher than 20 floors” Verizon’s CFO, Matt Ellis.

ABI has predicted that the 3.5 GHz band will be the dominant band used for 5G mobile. This affords 150 MHz (3550-3700 MHz) of bandwidth, less than a fifth given by the 28 GHz band, less than a 10th of the 36 GHz band and just 1.1% of the 60 GHz band.

But this is a natural approach allowing greater dissemination of 5G. And while speeds won’t be as great, we have argued for a long time that 5G is not solely about speed. It’s instead about enabling new technologies – particularly autonomous vehicles, or industrial robots – which need latency in the order of 1 ms.

You can easily transmit HD (and beyond) over 4G, the real challenge is the coverage and the quality of service. But if you used its slow latencies a vehicle moving at 90 mph would travel 1-1.6 m before even starting to react – braking, swerving etc. With a 1 ms latency the distance is reduced to 4 cm.

5G and the millimetre wave bands do, however, still enable great speed which will be in high demand for many applications – especially fixed-wireless access. The most natural fit being the last-mile fibre connections. But also watch out for its implementation in high-throughput services such as VR.

What to look out for at CES?

Licensed vs unlicensed:

We’ve already seen a great divergence with both our customers and with the industry in general. Here at Blu Wireless, we’re frequency agnostic and support our customers working in both classes of spectra, notably 15, 28, 39, 60 and 94 GHz. Verizon and AT&T’s trials both used the licensed 28 GHz band, but we think the smaller, more-agile players will move towards using unlicensed spectra.

For millimetre-wave technologies (unlike 3G / 4G) there is very-limited benefit in owning the spectrum you’re using, especially as using the 60 GHz band (and its vast bandwidth) allows you to cut the modulation scheme, remove the need for MIMO and ultimately cut the power required to deliver the same data rates.

It will be very much worth keeping an eye on who’s using what and what the overall trend is.

Application, application, application:

The autonomous vehicle will feature heavily in CES, and 5G is a key enabling technology in delivering this. There is a big demand for this, not least due to the huge number of driver-caused deaths that happen every day around the world. But there will also be the fantastical and it’s worth being skeptical on many of these. We’ve heard everything from the likely (industrial robots / IoT) through to the less likely (robotic surgeons for poorer countries, controlled by experts from around the world).

CES will be a great place to see all likely uses, even if your inbuilt skepticism needs to be set a little higher than normal.

Out and out speed:

5G is not about out and out speed, but it will be on show. Last year we saw Etisalat (the UAE operator) demonstrate over 70 Gbps (just to highlight how impressive that is – 71,750 Mbps) over an unlicensed band. Expect this to be beaten, especially by operators representing the traditionally less-endowed network-speeds.

Will we see 100 GHz? Our guess is that it will be close.

Fig 3 – The world’s top 20 mobile networks, based on speed – extrapolated from OpenSignal’s June 2017 report


Collaboration will be everything in 5G. Many of the industry’s biggest players will be seeking to collaborate to understand how to deliver this technology. We’re specialists in millimetre wave technology, already facilitating working solutions to some of the biggest players in the industry so we understand the complexities of connecting the future. We know peace of mind is paramount for our customers and that’s why we’re showcasing our offering during CES so people can experience it for themselves.

If you would like to book an appointment to see a demonstration of the multi-gigabit modem technology, please contact info@bluwirelesstechnology.com