3GPP is expected to announce the completion of Release 16 early next month, making 5G NR in unlicensed spectrum, or 5G NR-U, another step closer to reality.
Qualcomm for years has been working on ways to help mobile operators make better use of unlicensed spectrum, going back to the days when LTE-U, a non-standards-based technology, triggered debate with the Wi-Fi community.
That led to the creation of LAA technology through the traditional standards process, putting Wi-Fi’s collective mind at ease when it came to concerns about LTE dominating the spectrum. Qualcomm also was early to MulteFire, which focused exclusively on unlicensed spectrum, negating the need for a licensed anchor, which is required in LAA.
Now it's set its sights on 5G NR-U, which can deliver higher multi-Gbps peak data speeds, ultra-low latency, more reliability, massive network capacity, increased availability and a more uniform user experience to more users when compared to LTE, according to Pratik Das, staff manager in Qualcomm’s Technical Marketing department.
“NR-U provides operators more spectrum options when deploying 5G, both to aggregate unlicensed spectrum with an anchor channel in licensed spectrum as well as deploying 5G NR-U standalone in unlicensed spectrum without any licensed spectrum,” he said.
It’s those multi-gigabit speeds that are particularly enticing, according to Patrik Lundqvist, director, Technical Marketing at Qualcomm. That’s a prominent use case, much the same way operators were able to get gigabit speeds with LAA, but this time, because it’s 5G, it’s on steroids, so to speak.
The standard will allow for up to 400 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum to be used in the downlink direction, and up to 100 megahertz of that to be used in the uplink direction, Das said.
Big expectations for 6 GHz
A lot of people praised the FCC in April for making more unlicensed spectrum available for Wi-Fi when it adopted new rules for the 6 GHz band, allocating the full 1200 megahertz for unlicensed uses. But in FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s statement after the vote, he specifically mentioned 3GPP Release 16 and 5G NR-U, saying that while the band will be a gain to unlicensed users, it will also be a gain for their licensed counterparts.
While Qualcomm played a big and early role in the 6 GHz initiative and a significant part of its business is Wi-Fi, it never had only Wi-Fi in mind for the uses in the band, Lundqvist said. “We think unlicensed spectrum is a fantastic resource to have available,” he said.
Mobile operators are expected to be 5G NR-U beneficiaries, but Qualcomm also talks a lot about the use case for private 5G networks, which includes malls, dense urban areas and campuses—the same types of venues where Wi-Fi proliferates. Lundqvist said Wi-Fi will continue to be used where it makes sense, but industrial users may want a 5G alternative that meets higher service requirements.
Qualcomm isn’t making any NR-U product announcements at this time. But it’s worth noting that the Release 15 non-standalone (NSA) version of the 5G standard was complete in December 2017 and the first 5G NSA phones were released at Mobile World Congress in 2019.
Asked whether 5G NR-U and private LTE in CBRS will compete for the same business, Das said 5G NR-U brings additional spectrum options to the operator to complement existing spectrum options, including CBRS. “One exciting example is to use anchored NR-U with an anchor channel in CBRS spectrum, either LTE or 5G, and aggregate it with NR-U in unlicensed spectrum, either 5 GHz or 6 GHz, to boost bandwidth and capacity,” he said.