Beamforming and bickering; the LTE giants get to grips with automotive

The past week has seen two announcements appear that illustrate the cellular industry’s attempts to diversify into automotive applications. With next-gen technologies as a platform, Ericsson, SK Telecom, and BMW demonstrated a 28GHz beamforming technique that could push a 3.6Gbps stream to a moving vehicle, and Nokia, Alphabet, and Qualcomm exploring the potential of a private 3.5GHz LTE network.

Broadly speaking, next-gen vehicles are going to have a number of different wireless requirements. First off, in-car media consumption will require a data pipe to provide audio and video content to in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems, as well as the packets to power the IVI’s navigation systems.

As such, the MNOs are in the midst of trying to prove to automakers that their networks and offerings are key to the development of the connected car – and eventually fully autonomous vehicles. With troubling times looming on the horizon for their core consumer markets, the IoT as a whole represents a new opportunity for growth – with automotive applications looking to be particularly high-value targets.

The next step for these vehicles, in terms of capabilities, will be to the connectivity to provide remote diagnostics, management, and interaction between the car and its owner, as well as its manufacturer and third-parties like insurers or fleet operators. Engine telematics, ECU-readouts, miles travelled, fuel consumption – all those types of data need some way out of the vehicle and into the relevant cloud applications.

The next evolution would be enable vehicles to talk to things in their vicinity, collectively referred to as V2V (Vehicle-to-X), and encompasses traffic systems and smart city infrastructure, as well as direct V2V communication. Being able to push navigation information to vehicles is a useful tool, but scenarios like crowd-sourced road condition reports are other strong candidates for such connectivity requirements.

In terms of a final step, the V2V connectivity needs to advance to a point where it can be used in real-time peer-to-peer communication – to facilitate functions such as emergency braking, collision avoidance, vehicle platooning, and fully autonomous driving. While these advanced vehicles are going to be able to drive themselves even when they lose network connectivity, they form part of an ecosystem that requires mass collaboration.

And to this end, direct communications between vehicles on the same roads is required, and LTE hopes to be able to provide that capability. In the first piece of news, Ericsson and SK Telecom went to the races, in order to demonstrate 5G beamforming for automotive applications – using the 28GHz band to send a 3.6Gbps stream to a BMW car on the move.

As SK Telecom puts it, “connected car is regarded as the barometer for 5G, as it can only be realized through the combination of all 5G technologies. As ultra-high speed and ultra-low latency are prerequisites for realizing autonomous driving and immersive media services, the 3.6Gbps transmission speed we successfully demonstrated not only brings us a step closer to realizing autonomous driving, but will also have a great impact on a broader range of industries.”

The second announcement saw Nokia, Alphabet, and Qualcomm team up to demonstrate what they say was the first instance of a private LTE network in the new CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) frequency band – using the signal to send a 360-degree VR experience from a stock car racing around at the Richard Petty Driving Experience event, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Hitting speeds of 180mph, the tech would allow a viewer to see what it is like driving one of these NASCAR racers – and the trio are pitching the technology as a way for venues to offer new services and experiences using a private LTE network in the CBRS bands.

The CBRS spectrum, as defined by the FCC, sits in the 3.5GHz band, at 3550-3700MHz. Adopted back in April 2015, it uses a similar dynamic access database as that used in TV White Spaces (TVWS). That access system has three tiers; Incumbent Access, Priority Access, and General Authorized Access.

The Incumbents include authorized federal and grandfathered fixed satellite services, currently in the 3.5GHz band, and the FCC notes that they will be protected from interference from the Priority and General users. The Priority users are going to be bidding on 10MHz channels in the 3550-3650MHz portion, with limits on the number of active licenses and their duration. Lastly, the General tier is allowed open and flexible access to the band, using any portion of the CBRS band that isn’t currently in use.

Using CBRS bidding, Nokia, Alphabet, and Qualcomm envision a world in which sports venues and campuses would be able to fire up a private LTE network on a temporary basis, without the need to buy the type of spectrum license that MNOs require for national operations. Using the LTE network, they could then push content and experiences to users in the vicinity.

The CBRS band should not be confused with the DSRC band in 75MHz of the 5.9GHz – a section of spectrum that is currently being encroached on by calls to open it up for use in LTE-U applications. There are many WiFi advocates that denounce these plans, citing a plethora of interference concerns, but with a regime change at the FCC, the future of DSRC’s status looks uncertain – although DSRC hasn’t been used all that much since its creation in 1999.