2019: Year of the Start of the Next Technology Wave
Narayan Menon | December 18th, 2018
Here we are at the start of 2019 already! That means it’s prediction season once again. This year, we predict, will be year in which we start to see change, specifically the move toward the next generation of technology.
- The start of spectrum sharing
Spectrum sharing has been part of the conversation for years, but new developments suggest that it will become a reality in 2019. The catalyst? The availability of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band in the United States. The goal behind the initiative is to empower new wireless players and stimulate innovation and growth within the wireless industry and economy in general.
This spectrum is unlikely to be licensed to a single operator and won’t be given full unlicensed spectrum status as with WiFi. Instead, the 3.5GHz band will have three tiers of access. Tier 1 will be for incumbent military and government use (and will unsurprisingly have priority). Tier 2 will be licensed, but unlike national licenses, it will be more local and parceled off into smaller bandwidth packages. And Tier 3 will be for unlicensed use, similar to WiFi.
Regulatory bodies in other markets are following the progress of the CBRS band closely and plan to roll out similar schemes of their own. If operators use this experience to share spectrum elsewhere, 2019 will be just the start of spectrum sharing.
We expect LTE over CBRS to become a deployment reality in 2019. Infrastructure (base stations, etc.) supporting CBRS are already available. But what will gate the uptake of CBRS will be availability of user devices (e.g. smartphones and tablets) that support CBRS, as is always the case with new generations of technology. The interesting thing about CBRS is that the band (3.5 GHz) has been included from the outset in the 5G specifications. This means that CBRS is effectively future-proof moving into the next generation. In fact, 5G, with its multi-band support, inter-band agility, and “unlicensed spectrum friendly” features will take spectrum sharing to a different level.
- A whole lot more spectrum – the 6 GHz band!
WiFi has, for a long time now, had two bands to work with: 2.4 and 5 GHz. Now, the FCC is opening up the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use. In fact, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in October, describing their plans in detail. A final ruling on 6 GHz will likely materialize in 2019.
Think of what this will do for unlicensed spectrum usage. WiFi will have a whole new band at its disposal – up to 1.2 GHz of additional bandwidth and many more channels to play with. Additionally, this new band is close enough to the existing 5 GHz band, so WiFi devices and networks can easily be tuned to access this band. The WiFi community has welcomed this development with open arms. In fact, the 802.11ax standardization group is looking to include 6 GHz in their specification.
6 GHz has been defined within the 5G specifications as well, so 5G systems will likely access it in the future as well. The 6 GHz band is currently sparsely used by incumbents, and unlicensed access to this band will likely be coordinated via a spectrum database framework, similar to the Spectrum Allocation System used in CBRS.
- Standards set the mark – 5G and 802.11ax
5G standards came a long way in 2018. The first version of the 5G “standalone” standard was ratified in June. What’s even more interesting is that we will see initial 5G deployments in 2019 supporting fixed wireless use cases. Verizon is leading the charge here, with a residential broadband modem that provides WiFi coverage in the home and 5G millimeter-wave fixed wireless backhaul out of the home. We expect other operators to follow suit in 2019 along similar lines.
While 5G has been hogging the headlines, it isn’t the only hype-worthy standard. 802.11ax is being branded as “Wi-Fi 6” (a snappier name than “802.11ax”), and is WiFi’s own next-generation variant with plenty of LTE-like capabilities built into the standard.
While the 802.11ax standard is 4-10 times faster than existing WiFi systems, the other parts of the standard are more interesting. “Frequency-division multiple access” means that each channel can be broken up into multiple smaller sub-channels, and up to 30 devices can share a channel without having to take turns broadcasting and listening. More data will be able to be transmitted per packet, enabling devices to quickly access and abandon the channel, further cutting down on congestion. 802.11ax will enable a far wider array of deployment use cases than WiFi is able to support today.
The 802.11ax standardization is expected to be complete in late 2019, but we will see pre-standard 802.11ax routers shipping out in 2019. 802.11ax is expected to become more mainstream in 2020.
- Remaining relevant – WLAN 802.11ac Wave 2 with Smart Management
There is a strong trend for service providers to want to maintain their place in the home and supply their routers to customers. If this router is replaced by the consumer, the service provider simply becomes an internet supplier without a foothold—a big risk when companies like Google and Amazon are already making a strong play to manage everything in the home.
2019 will see rollouts of WLAN 802.11ac Wave 2 technology with smart WiFi management in both residential and enterprise deployments. By bundling new routers with software that proactively manages WiFi in either of these spaces, there is also the potential for service providers to leverage this position and upsell additional services.
- Collaboration and WiFi-First approaches
Many mobile operators already share networks, whether it’s by ‘passive sharing’, where network equipment shares the same space, or sharing of RAN or core networks. Consumers benefit by connecting to a ‘super network’ made up of multiple RANs. Operators benefit as their partner’s network helps with weaknesses in their own.
This sort of collaboration also makes sense for WiFi networks, particularly for WiFi-First mobile services. There is a limit to the number of access points that can be deployed in one area before interference becomes an issue. Sharing agreements means reaching the most congested areas without saturating the airwaves with competing networks in the same location and helps plug WiFi coverage gaps.
We can expect cable companies to leverage collaborations to implement WiFi-First strategies, using WiFi for in-home and metro area coverage, and MVNO agreements with mobile carriers to build out wide-area coverage. Having wide enough WiFi coverage is fundamental to this strategy, making WiFi network sharing and Community WiFi approaches valuable. Keeping customers on the WiFi network saves money by relying on the mobile fallback network less often, and the whole proposition becomes far more viable.
- The pressure of IoT
Almost everyone has a prediction about the number of IoT devices: By 2020, Ericsson says we will have 28 billion, IHS Markit projects 30.7bn, while Gartner has gone for 20.8bn. Whatever the actual number, we’re going to have a lot of them.
But increased device density as a result is going to put strain on the networks these devices use. There are new networks designed to meet the specific needs of low-energy IoT devices, such as LoRa, Zigbee and low-energy LTE flavors. However, before these see mass adoption, WiFi and mobile networks will need to bear the strain.
In 2019, this strain will become an issue. But while mobile networks are prepared for this, WiFi networks are not. As with the refresh of WLAN equipment, this is an opportunity for service providers to get involved and manage these networks. No customer is going to be happy if they find that their fridge or thermostat is causing their streaming movie to buffer, and service providers can offer to manage these WiFi networks to stop this happening.
An important step into the next generation of technology
This year won’t be a year of seismic changes, but rather we will see the start of changes that have been predicted for years finally coming true. 2019 will herald the industry’s entry into the next generation of technology, ushering in spectrum sharing, managed WiFi solutions, initial 5G capabilities, and expanded IoT capabilities.