Antennas: a critical element in your 5G network

Jake Saunders / ABI Research

The antenna has become a very complex and invaluable element of the 5G network, and momentum behind 5G is rapidly building. In September 2018, we will see the completion of 5G Phase 1 (3GPP Release 15), which includes standardization work up to 52-GHz. By December 2019, 5G Phase 2 (3GPP Release 16) will have investigated bands up to 100-GHz.

Mobile data traffic continues to ramp up, which is being primed by the upgrade in cellular access technology. ABI Research saw worldwide mobile data and traffic cross the 170 exabytes  threshold in 2017. Due to the sheer capacity that 5G will enable, 5G traffic will eclipse 4G by 2026. The net result will be approximately 1.7 zettabytes of traffic (a zettabyte is 1,000 exabytes). The reason for this stimulation is by no means a secret: by 2025, video traffic will represent nearly 80% of all traffic and 4K content is rapidly growing.

C-band is the 5G anchor band

There has been a great deal of commentary about the C-Band (3.5 +/- GHz). It will be a 5G anchor “frequency” for Mobile Service Providers (MSPs). ABI Research expects Korean and Japanese operators to aggressively use the 3.5-GHz band to provide national coverage. For millimeter wave bands, expect to see initial momentum in the North American market, particularly from AT&T and Verizon for fixed wireless access using 28-GHz. MSPs are also advocating the need for need for spectrum in the sub-1 GHz band, which can provide very wide area 5G coverage.
   
Innovative solutions

Regarding cell site architecture, OEM vendors, such as Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, and ZTE have developed innovative radio access network solutions in cooperation with antenna companies, such as Amphenol, Commscope, Huawei, Kathrein, and Rosenberger. Three complementary initiatives to keep an eye on are: proactive cell shaping, where beamforming can be used to shape cell coverage; vector sectorization, which is the upgrade from a standard 3-sector to a 6-sector cell site; and the third initiative would be a move to MIMO antennas.

Many existing LTE antennas are 2x2 Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO), but there is growing momentum behind 4x4. Trials and deployments of 8x2 and 8x8 MIMO are now taking place. This can result in a variety of MIMO applications: Multi-User MIMO, with hotspots that can track where users reside; Full-Dimension MIMO, which can more effectively reach into buildings and skyscrapers; and Massive MIMO, which provides substantial increases in capacity in a range of spectrum bands, both high and low. There will not be a single Massive MIMO deployment configuration; for instance, we will see 16x16, 32x32, and 64x64.
   

As the number of frequency licenses acquired by MSPs has multiplied, there is increasing pressure for multiple frequencies to be “housed” in a single antenna array. This is driven by aesthetics, regulatory pressure, and limited space on top of cell sites. As a result, antennas that can support 12-, 14-, 16-port, and even higher configurations, have been commercialized. 
   
Mobile antenna shipment outlook  

At the end of 2017, the overall market was valued at $3.6 billion. A potential market slowdown could occur in 2018 and 2019 as the wait for 5G creates a lull in infrastructure purchasing. As a result, growth will be in the range of 3% to 4%.

There is also a shift in what constitutes that antenna revenue. An increasing proportion will come from MIMO and Massive MIMO. The installed base of all MIMO installations in 2017 was 3.6 million. By 2021, we see that number growing to just under 9 million installations. As we drill down further to Massive MIMO, ABI Research expects to see an increase of nearly 380,000 installations in that timeframe. 
   
In summary

  • Network slicing will enable a range of novel 5G applications, but it needs to be empowered by infrastructure. The latest innovative antennas are a key component of that vision. 
  • There is continuing momentum on 5G, in the C-Band, 26GHz to 28 GHz bands and, in time, sub-1 GHz bands.
  • Key considerations for operators will continue to be antenna height, weight, and install time, reinforcing the importance of multi-band antennas.
  • Moving to advanced MIMO antennas (Multi-User, Full Dimension, and Massive MIMO) will an important strategy for MSPs.?

Jake Saunders is Vice President for Asia at ABI Research

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