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Industry bets on fixed wireless access for first 5G deployments

Separate tests in Romania and the UK have been demonstrating the potential of fixed wireless access as a component of 5G

A real-world trial of 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) networks serving connectivity to paying consumers has taken place in Floreşti in Romania.

Meanwhile at the UK’s University of Sussex, academics have been gathering data on how FWA signals interact with their environment through a series of experiments, as the industry continues to assess the benefits of the technology as a component of future 5G mobile networks.

FWA networks are point-to-point data communications links that bypass copper and fibre lines for the last mile, connecting fixed points with a terrestrial microwave platform.

The technology is in vogue at the moment partly because it needs little to no investment in infrastructure and is easier to deploy than a traditional fibre broadband network.

It is also partly because it has proven its ability to deliver ultrafast broadband services over a wireless network, and therefore can potentially be rolled out as a key element of 5G very early on, perhaps as soon as 2019.

The Romanian tests were conducted by mobile network operator Orange in the town of Floreşti, a suburb of Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s fourth city and the unofficial capital of Transylvania – and also the site of Orange’s first 2G mast in Romania more than 20 years ago.

Liudmila Climoc, CEO of Orange Romania, said the town’s combination of detached housing and apartment blocks made it an ideal testbed to show how FWA can serve multiple indoor environments.

Romania frequently emerges as among the top connected nations in Europe for access to fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband networks, although take-up is lower than the European average, so Orange was also keen to demonstrate to consumers what the next steps may look like in terms of how 5G can improve the home broadband experience.

This may be particularly timely given its rival Vodafone recently announced a local tie-up with Telekom Romania to launch fixed internet and TV service over its fibre network ahead of its takeover of Liberty Global’s local operation, UPC.

Orange, which claims to have the largest extant 4G network in Romania, said it was also keen to preserve this advantage moving forward, and Climoc urged the Romanian government to take steps to develop its plans for national 5G.

“We expect to get a strategic roadmap defined by the end of the year, so it is time to go from a demonstration to live tests,” she said.

“We are really proud to be the first European country and the first operator to bring 5G to a live test. It is very important to us to bring technology to our country, and check it versus the expectations of Romanian customers,” added Climoc.

Romanian secretary of state for telecommunications, Maria-Manuela Catrina, added: “We have just started a governmental-level working group – a cross-border group between different ministries, and with local authorities and industry. This disruptive technology needs to be understood by decision-makers to be in a position to plan the right things for the future.”

Orange invited 15 residential customers and one business – a local branch of supermarket chain Carrefour – to take part in the trial in Floreşti. Customers were to use their existing devices to access the service.

Cisco Meraki Z3 Wi-Fi routers and Ultra Gateway Platform, which deliver a 5G virtual packet core on top of Cisco’s network functions virtualisation (NFV) infrastructure to enhance throughput, and Samsung virtualised radio access network (RAN) terminals were placed in each household, which connected back to the 5G base station over millimetre wave in the 26GHz spectrum.

These base stations then connected through fibre backhaul to the virtualised core network at Orange’s datacentre in Cluj.

Throughout the trial, which began at the start of June 2018 and will wrap up in mid-July, Orange has been encouraging its customers to do their best to use multiple bandwidth- and data-hungry applications – such as 4K video streaming or online gaming – at the same time.

So far, the network has easily attained download speeds of 1Gbps over a 1km distance, a significant improvement over 4G long term evolution (LTE). Orange also said live measurements have shown the network hitting aggregated cell download throughputs of 3Gbps when few users were online, and it believes the system could potentially reach 6Gbps of aggregated capacity.

According to Orange marketing director Yves Martin, usage of the network has been very wide and, as hoped, very deep, with a lot of video streaming and gaming usage.

“The good news is that it is highly accepted – more than that, it is really appreciated in terms of reliability and speed. People say it is better than fibre in terms of connections,” he said.

Orange also reported that customers had appreciated the ease of the installation process and the stable connection, while testers at Carrefour reported they were able to run all the store’s key IT systems, from point-of-sale to back-office functions and supply chain management, using the enhanced connection.

Climoc said the trials would help Orange to firm up the business case for its own 5G investment in Romania.

“This is our challenge – how to make sure the consumer will benefit and how that can be reflected in the business case,” she said.

“This technology will require significant investment in technology and spectrum. It is too soon to talk about the business case, but that is why we are testing now – to see what is possible and what is not. We need to look at 5G in a very pragmatic way, otherwise we could jeopardise its deployment,” she added.

Success at Sussex

Back in the UK, a team led by former Samsung European 5G research head and chief engineer, Maziar Nekovee, now head of the department for engineering and design at the University of Sussex, has just completed initial testing of FWA equipment for indoor 5G coverage.

“With phase one of 5G global industry standards just being completed, which focuses on 5G enhanced mobile broadband, research is now moving to address 5G technology to support ultra-reliable and ultra-low-latency connectivity for vertical industries, such as automotive and industrial automation,” Nekovee said in a speech delivered at the 5G Industry Summit at Mobile World Congress Shanghai, which took place at the end of June.

“Our research is focusing on these new frontiers of 5G, as well as investigating future deployment by operators, including indoor coverage and spectrum coexistence in newly assigned 5G frequencies in 3.5 GHz and lower millimetre wave bands.”

The team tested 5G equipment in both the 3.5GHz spectrum band – the band auctioned by Ofcom earlier in 2018 – as well as in millimetre wave frequencies similar to those used for Orange’s Romanian testbed.

“Customers rightly will want assurances about the effectiveness of 5G in a real-life setting, and the University of Sussex provides an excellent setting for such a test,” said Richard Rudd, director of Plum Consultancy, which assisted in the trials.

“The recent tests provided data that is allowing us to model the complicated ways in which the signals interact with buildings and trees, so that indoor signal coverage can be predicted with more confidence.”

The University of Sussex will launch one of the world’s first International Masters courses in 5G courses later in 2018. Nekovee’s team will present a paper on its study at the European Conference on Antennas and Propagation (EuCAP) conference in Krakow, Poland, in 2019.

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