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Each year, the telecoms industry promises a revolution of some kind, stating that wireless technologies will change in a way that will disrupt our lives significantly. But revolutions cannot come about on a yearly basis – so in 2017, we will see wireless technologies evolve, rather than experience a revolution. In fact, this evolution is likely to last for the next couple of years, given that the next generational shift – whether it’s Wi-Fi or cellular – will take 3-4 years to occur. So this coming year, we should expect to see evolutions with Self-Optimizing Networks (SON), licensing and standardization.
The efforts to be made towards radio optimization and automation of Wi-Fi networks, using SON technology, will see service providers offer significantly improved Wi-Fi performance, especially in dense deployment areas. Coupled with improved manageability and operator visibility into large Wi-Fi networks, SON will ultimately result in satisfied Wi-Fi users, reduced customer care costs and a foundation for offering managed services (like voice and video) over Wi-Fi.
The advances in SON will also bolster small cell adoption and deployment. Over the last few years, slow adoption and deployment has been a recurring theme. To a great extent, small cell uptake in residences and enterprises has been stymied by the presence of Wi-Fi. A lot of what small cells promise to do – localized capacity and coverage in buildings – has been provided by Wi-Fi. With the advent of radio optimization and SON solutions in the Wi-Fi world, it will be possible to guarantee good service quality over Wi-Fi as well – in other words, provide a cellular-like service inside the home or enterprise. So much so that carriers are now strongly looking to provide managed services over Wi-Fi – video distribution and VoWiFi using existing Wi-Fi infrastructure.
Hence, SON and radio optimization technologies will make their presence felt in the Wi-Fi world this coming year. Software-based SON functionality will be necessary to ensure that Wi-Fi performs optimally in dense environments, consistent radio coverage is provided in homes and business facilities, network faults are proactively mitigated, and sufficient analytics are available to operators to diagnose and fix network issues. All this will be paramount to ensure reliable service delivery over Wi-Fi.
We are also likely to see continued momentum towards licensed and unlicensed convergence – in terms of development of standards and products, with commercial deployments unlikely to be seen before 2018. Convergence is currently presenting itself in three forms – LTE/Wi-Fi integration (à la LTE-LWA), licensed technology operation in unlicensed bands (e.g. LTE-LAA) and spectrum sharing in lightly used federal bands released by governments (e.g. the 3.5 GHz band in the US).
In the US, the FCC defined rules and requirements to facilitate sharing of the 3.5 GHz band. The incumbent operator here is the government (radar systems), and the FCC has formulated a three-tier structure for shared access to this band. Second-tier licensed providers will obtain priority access to this band when the incumbent isn’t using it. And tertiary opportunistic users can jump in and use the band for free when neither first nor second tier users are occupying the band. This Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band will be of interest to cellular, Wi-Fi and IoT technologies as a bandwidth augmentation mechanism. While we are unlikely to see commercial deployments in 2017, product development and early testing are likely to occur.
A significant 5G-related development has been the allocation in the US by the FCC of nearly 11 GHz of spectrum for 5G mobile broadband use. The newly allocated spectrum sits at 28 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 64-71 GHz. The FCC essentially opened up 3.85 GHz of licensed and 7 GHz of unlicensed spectrum. This is all high-frequency spectrum, and is consistent with a key 5G theme of high bandwidth in super-dense areas. It is interesting to see the proactivity of the FCC in this regard, clearly to stimulate 5G-related technology development in the US, with a view to getting the US an edge in 5G and in the IoT space.
Standardization is going to be key for the evolution of LTE-LWA and LTE-LAA, especially. This is particularly true of LTE-in-unlicensed solutions, given the concerns around Wi-Fi getting “usurped” by LTE devices and the strongly perceived need for coordinated LTE operation adhering to unlicensed band access etiquette. Standards development is expected to be completed in 2017, with products likely in 2018 and beyond. Proprietary variants like LTE-U may continue to get trialled out, but are unlikely to achieve commercial deployment, and will eventually give way to the standardized flavors.
When it comes to 5G standardization, work has definitely gotten underway, with 5G requirements getting formulated in 2016. 5G requirements, as defined by the 3GPP standards group, cover four key areas: (a) IoT-focused radio access technology, enabling low-cost device deployment on a massive scale; (b) latency/ reliability critical communications supporting industrial control and tactile internet; (c) enhanced mobile broadband, providing much higher data rates and addressing dense deployments; and (d) dramatically increasing operational efficiencies in the network enabling scalability, efficient content delivery and the support of multiple access networks.
This coming year is looking promising and the steady wave of change brought about by the developments in SON, licensing and standardization is setting pace for tomorrow’s wide scale wireless revolution.