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Verizon announces 5G customer trials as mmWave fever spreads to UK

AT&T and other operators may be trying to fast-track first-wave 5G standards (see separate item), but Verizon is still set to be the world’s first ‘5G’ carrier – even if it will resort to pre-standard, semi-proprietary platforms and fixed wireless services.

In 4G, Verizon was the second MNO in the world to offer commercial LTE, narrowly pipped to the post by TeliaSonera, but it did it with fully standardized, and mobile, systems.

But 5G will be different – not necessarily a technology for a full wide area upgrade, but more probably a way to augment 4G and support specialized locations or use cases with particularly demanding requirements. One of these use cases, both the US leaders believe, will be fixed wireless broadband, and Verizon is starting customer trials as early as April this year, working with Samsung, with a view to going commercial around year end.

The tests are a giant feather in the cap of Samsung, which has always been a minor infrastructure player outside of Korea and the WiMAX world. The latter gave it a role in the Sprint network, but now it is a key partner for Verizon too, deploying fixed wireless networks, based on the US carrier’s own pre-standard specifications, for tests in business and residential districts of five cities in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington DC and (from April) Michigan.

Ericsson is also understood to be involved in the initial customer tests, and Verizon has issued a longer list of trial sites in metro areas including Ann Arbor, Atlanta, Bernardsville (NJ), Brockton (MA), Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, Sacramento, Seattle.

Samsung will supply access and core network equipment and CPE with adjustable antenna for the 28 GHz band, which has been the main focus of pre-5G trials for Verizon and AT&T. The kit will comply with specs from Verizon’s 5G Technology Forum, which includes Cisco, Ericsson, Intel, Qualcomm and Samsung, among others.

In pre-commercial testing, which began in December, Samsung said the “system demonstrated multi-gigabit throughputs at radio distances of up to 1,500 feet (500 meters) across each of the different environments selected for the customer trials.”

Verizon said this would be “the largest proving ground in the world” for 5G, involving “several hundred cell sites that cover several thousand customer locations”.

“The 5G systems we are deploying will soon provide wireless broadband service to homes, enabling customers to experience cost-competitive, gigabit speeds that were previously only deliverable via fiber,” said Woojune Kim, VP of Samsung’s next generation business team.

It is not just the big names which are jumping onto the US operators’ fixed 5G enthusiasms. Mimosa Networks claims its latest products form the “first commercially viable 5G fixed wireless internet architecture”. Its urban MicroPoP and rural GigaPoP  use the company’s new proprietary Spectrum Reuse Synchronization (SRS) technology.

Mimosa was founded five years ago to focus on urban and rural fixed wireless as a more cost-effective alternative to fiber, and initially worked in the 5 GHz band. This is where Mimosa diverges from Verizon, because it is not convinced about the millimeter wave bands, as yet at least. It says it has experimented in 60 GHz, 70 GHz and 24 GHz in various environments, but believes the limited ability to penetrate obstacles or cope with moving vehicles still tie the hands of these high frequencies.

Chief product officer Jaime Fink remains focused on sub-6 GHz band, and says Mimosa’s chief innovation is to develop new ways to reuse that spectrum as it becomes increasingly scarce. The technology is spectrum neutral but has the biggest commercial and performance impact in lower frequencies – the US’s 3.5 GHz CBRS band could be a target, for instance.

“With a severe shortage of lower frequency spectrum, Mimosa’s real innovation is in developing new technologies to reuse that critical spectrum geographically to reduce the amount of spectrum required to scale a gigabit speed network,” Fink said. “The wireless last mile is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ scenario. We must take advantage of fiber where it’s available, use millimeter wave frequencies for reliable short range backhaul, and most importantly, promote spectrum sharing and reuse techniques in the lower frequencies that are needed to reach people’s homes.”

Rory Conaway, CEO of Triad Wireless, a residential WISP in Arizona, said Mimosa gave his firm the ability to deploy high performance services for one-tenth of the cost of fiber.
“As a 100% wireless ISP using the Mimosa 5G MicroPoP solution with SRS technology, we’ve dramatically reduced our spectrum usage and delivered fiber-like speeds to customers who could not be happier with the experience,” he said.

Commenting on the Verizon trials, Fink said: “Verizon’s 5G fixed customer trials will deliver connectivity in the 28GHz, mmWave frequency bands, however, the viability of these bands should be scrutinised for both mobile and fixed applications. Delivering mmWave broadband connectivity in non-line-of-sight (NLOS) environments, such as suburban and urban areas, is extremely problematic over the last quarter mile. This is because signals can be affected by environmental factors such as foliage and solid constructions, typical in suburban areas, where almost 80% of the US citizens reside. Rather than using the challenging, unproven mmWave channels for 5G, the industry should use the sub-6GHz spectrum bands, which have incredible propagation characteristics through foliage and construction materials.”

Meanwhile, the UK is also getting increasingly interested in millimeter wave spectrum, with new tests announced by BT and by towerco Arqiva.

The incumbent telco and its mobile arm EE will work with NEC and the University of Salford for their mmWave fixed wirelss tests, but are concentrating mainly on small cell backhaul rather than access. As BT put it, a primary concern of the trials will be to see “how these links may stand up to the rigors of the British weather”.

The partners will test the performance of V-band point-to-point mobile backhaul, using the 60GHz band and a testbed based at the University. This testbed has been created to measure the performance of the V-band radio system over a 12-month period when exposed to rain, wind, fog and ice.

And Arqiva says it is undertaking the UK’s first 5G fixed wireless access trial, which will take place in the second half of 2017 in central London in the 28 GHz band. This band is arousing hopes for a globally harmonized mmWave 5G spectrum, as it is being used for trials in the US, Japan and Korea, with others, like the UK, in the pipeline.

Samsung is providing the base stations to provide dense coverage and ultra-high speed connectivity to CPEs (or Customer Premise Equipment) installed in nearby locations, riding on Arqiva’s mobile masts and street furniture.

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