Schoolar: MWC 2015 RAN review – 5G, 4.5G, and some other random observations

Daryl Schoolar ovum

Daryl Schoolar

As expected and even discussed here on FierceWireless prior to Mobile World Congress, the annual mobile confab was ripe with 5G talk. Just about every major RAN vendor, with the exception of Alcatel-Lucent, had something labeled in its booth as 5G.  This doesn't mean Alcatel-Lucent didn't have plenty to say on the subject during MWC.

Even with 2020 as the earliest agreed upon time that we would see a fully standardized and commercial 5G network, that doesn't stop vendors from talking about what it will be like when we get there.  The challenge between now and 2020 is deciphering what is hype and marketing smoke and mirrors from what is really going on with 5G. One thing that is currently certain about 5G is that its main purpose appears to be to support machine-to-machine connections or IoT. It also appears there is a growing consensus that lower spectrum bands will use some evolution of the current LTE standard while a new air interface will be needed for higher spectrum bands. What isn't certain is where do the low bands end and the high bands begin.

Much more concrete and near term was the rise of 4.5G as a topic at MWC.  To be clear 4.5G is really just LTE-A, but vendors are using the 4.5G along with a few other labels to communicate there is more to LTE-A than basic carrier aggregation. Depending on which vendor you ask 4.5G includes a mixture of 3GPP Rel. 12 through 14 features. These things include LTE-LAA, improved machine-to-machine communications, higher orders of MIMO and carrier aggregation, and improved HetNet performance. As 4.5G doesn't have an official definition not all vendors include Rel. 12 features in their discussions.  I did hear rumors that 3GPP might give 4.5G official branding and definition. A definition would help clear up exactly what is and isn't 4.5G.  The names I hear being considered are LTE Extra or LTE Xtra.

Now just because 4.5G doesn't currently have an official definition that doesn't mean it is just marketing hype.  Looking at the roadmaps RAN vendors have presented it is clear that 4.5G will serve as a bridge between the LTE of today and what those vendors expect 5G will eventually be.

For me 5G and 4.5G were the two big RAN themes of MWC 2015.  And, both of those themes no doubt will be expanded upon during the next subsequent mobile congresses.  Beyond that the following are a few more specific observations I had about the event:

  • The continuing shrinking of the macro base station as illustrated with both Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson's portfolio refreshes or even the Surface radio shown by Huawei could have an impact on the small cell market. One of the advantages of the small cell has always been its ability to be deployed in areas where macro cells can't be deployed. However, the shrinking of the macro form factor is eating away at that advantage. This could ultimately impact the addressable small cell market.
  • Even with changes in the macro cell form factor, vendors still see small cells as important part of their radio portfolios.  Both Huawei and Nokia announced updates to their small cell portfolios.  Cisco entered into a partnership with SpiderCloud. This partnership will help Cisco to better serve the small cell needs of larger enterprises.
  • Don't be surprised if Alcatel-Lucent's and Ericcson's recent RAN portfolio refreshes leads other vendors to do the same over then next 12-months.
  • It appears we are on our way to overcoming the C-RAN front haul bottleneck. Both Alcatel-Lucent and Nokia demonstrated new solutions that allow Ethernet for the fronthaul making C-RAN a possibility for more operators.
  • All this LTE-U, LTE-LAA, LTE-LWA stuff is confusing. Even vendors get confused when trying to explain it.  Imagine consumers trying to get their heads around it.  Using unlicensed spectrum and Wi-Fi to improve LTE capacity is an interesting and possibly very beneficial thing, but there is lots of work and education needed before that happens.

As a RAN analyst I have to say this years Mobile World Congress was one of the more exciting ones recently thanks to all of the portfolio updates, 5G future visions, and concrete 4.5G plans.  It makes the 20+ hours of travel each way, the collection of indecipherable expense report receipts, and very sore feet worth it. 

Daryl Schoolar is Principal Analyst of Wireless Infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas, but how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him at @DHSchoolar.