Simplifying 5G Evolution Across APAC

Asia is driving the mobile industry forward when it comes to 5G. Analysys Mason recently reported 71% of mobile operators in the region are already engaged with the roll out of next-generation infrastructure, and over a quarter expect to achieve commercial launch of these services by 2020. However, there’s a lot of work to be done before this becomes a reality. Putting the systems in place that are capable of delivering the benefits of 5G, and can support heightened demand that goes with it, has created a series of technical and economic challenges the world over. And APAC operators will need to be at the forefront of working to address them.

Tackling The Challenges Ahead

Part of these challenges stem from the obvious, but important, consideration that 5G won’t replace what’s come before it. 4G and 5G will coexist. LTE-based systems will continue to evolve and 5G infrastructure will be built alongside it. This will naturally require new hardware; primarily due to the fact that 5G will be using new spectrum bands in sub-6GHz and mmWave, but also because existing equipment simply won’t be up to the task.

Emmanuel-Saint-Dizier-RFS-5g

Emmanuel Saint Dizier, VP-Innovation Strategy, RFS

Massive MIMO (mMIMO) has risen up as a key enabler of LTE-A and 5G as a result. Yet there are still question marks over how this will become a reality on overcrowded macro sites and the cost attached. There’s no doubt that active antennas will be needed to support these new deployments, but they’re currently contributing to the “telecom site nightmare” operators have faced for some time.

The Space Race

Site constraints are nothing new. It’s a problem in APAC and the world over, particularly in dense urban locations where they’re already overcrowded. It’s become almost impossible for operators to acquire new sites as a result. Also, as a typical site already supports many different antennas and bands for a variety of purposes and operators, trying to add new ones creates a long, expensive, and complicated negotiation process with site owners. The answer, then, is to find new ways of deploying 5G (or LTE-A and 5G-ready) active antennas onto existing sites as efficiently as possible.

One way to approach this is to add active antennas separately. However, this method is impractical in many locations due to the lack of space at the cell site. Another option is to combine existing passive arrays or “stack” them to create room for active antennas, although this can have negative performance trade-offs depending on the installation. As neither of these options are ideal, many operators have opted for a new approach to address the space vs cost vs performance challenge by looking to Active Passive Antenna (APA) technology, which innovative hardware vendors are capitalising upon.

Preparing For The Future

Active Passive Antenna systems combine a 5G active antenna with a passive base station antenna used for legacy (2G, 3G, and 4G) networks. For operators, this is effectively a two-in-one system housed in a form factor that’s largely the same size as what they’ve deployed before. It’s a simplified way to get around cell site restraints, introducing a layer of active antennas to existing macro sites without increasing the overall antenna count per sector.

This approach dramatically streamlines site negotiations and reduces the cost of ownership for active antenna deployments. After all, integrating mMIMO systems with passive multi-band antennas, without dramatically affecting the form factor or performance, can potentially solve the economic issues for operators while also minimising visual impact.

It’s a modular evolution too, as antenna systems like this can also be deployed in stages. For example, the passive element can be installed at the cell site first and be operational immediately, with an active antenna being added to the unit later on. This approach represents the future of mobile infrastructure and lets operators adopt a “pay as you grow” strategy, spreading the up-front cost. For the 31 operators in Asia Pacific that are already conducting 5G trials, the benefits of modularity will also help them streamline the upgrade and maintenance process for active antenna systems in the future.

The Evolution To 5G

With APAC operators at the forefront of 5G’s development and accounting for nearly half of 5G field trials worldwide, the investments they make today will have a huge impact on its commercial success in the future. There’s no question that active antennas will be critical to the delivery of 5G. However, we’ll likely see several generations of this technology during its lifetime, which is understandably raising concerns among operators about the total cost of ownership associated with active antenna systems in the future.

A modular approach is a logical way to address this concern, creating the flexibility for operators to more easily introduce new infrastructure when required and dramatically simplify the roll out of next-generation services in the future. This is the key to 5G’s success and is ultimately what will help operators move from 5G hype to 5G reality – with APA technology at the heart of this evolution.

By : Emmanuel Saint Dizier, VP – Innovation Strategy, RFS

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