TIA converges on the network of the future

Once a year the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) holds a membership meeting that looks forward to tomorrow’s networks. Last week I moderated a spectrum panel at the “Network of the Future” conference in Dallas, and stayed for the rest of the wireless track (parallel tracks I didn’t attend related to software-defined networking and big data).

My panelists, from Cisco, Nokia, Shared Spectrum Company, and Goldin Associates, took stock of spectrum in play. We discussed the 600 MHz incentive auction (the 484-page Report and Order being released the day before), the 3.5 GHz band proceeding, border issues with Canada and Mexico, activity above 6 GHz, and ancillary terrestrial operation in mobile satellite service.

Discussion included some concerns on potential broadcast equipment bottlenecks that might delay TV station repacking, and the practicality of using frequencies approaching 100 GHz. Shared Spectrum shared results from its analyses showing near-zero usage of several federal bands. It looks like the very large exclusion zones proposed for 3.5 GHz will be greatly reduced, but will the 5-year license aggregation limit deter investment?

A later panel on 5G research discussed several candidate 5G technologies, including millimeter-wave, massive MIMO, new waveforms, and interference cancellation, to name a few. What’s 5G? We don’t know. It’s in the research phase. Look forward to, perhaps, 10x to 100x data rates, and 1000x higher data throughput per unit area. Some think the most advanced implementations of LTE-Advanced, yet to come, might be considered 5G, others not. One area of agreement: there’s no rush. 4G is looked on as kind of a horse race, artificially driven by ITU deadlines, between LTE and WiMAX. This time around I’m hearing more about business cases, establishing user requirements, and organic growth. There’s general agreement 5G may not be one specification, but a heterogeneous system of many technologies (beyond, say, today’s prevalent mix of 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi). Through millimeter wave extensions, for example, 4G might become an element of 5G.

A panel focusing on unlicensed spectrum was pleased with the FCC’s decision making a significant amount available as part of the 600 MHz incentive auction; apparently, it was down to the wire whether or not that would happen. Some grumbling about not being able to use the 5.850-5.925 GHz band — 75 megahertz that the FCC would like to make available for unlicensed use, but now assigned to intelligent transportation systems and generally unused.

A small-cell and distributed antenna system (DAS) panel focused on filling in coverage and gaps, and finding a business case to do so. A focus on prewiring buildings with antenna systems, but sometimes lacking high-bandwidth connections to the buildings. The emphasis was on replicating the macrocell indoors, or in arenas. What I didn’t hear was another vision of small cells you’ll hear from, say, Qualcomm, that emphasizes performance beyond that which can be achieved from a macrocell; the short path from the user to the small cell making possible higher data rates and improved battery life.

Rural operators spoke to their particular challenges, covering 90% of the U.S. land mass but only about 15% of the population. One operator said he has 6 of his customers in a 30,000 square mile area. Phone unlocking isn’t working out so well — a phone can have the same bands and same technology, but operator-specific software on the phone makes bringing them into their networks difficult. They want “generic” phones that will work for them or the largest operators.

This was a conference on the “network of the future,” and that was the theme of keynote speeches from executives at Ericsson, AT&T, and Verizon. Ericsson says network convergence disrupts profit pools, pushing the industry to experiment. All three point to network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) as enabling this experimentation.

Verizon expanded more than the others on wireless, saying it wants to use LTE in unlicensed bands to increase capacity “as soon as possible.” It sees 5G coming, but not before it’s needed. While all three presentations emphasized increased flexibility and performance, Verizon’s was the only one that emphasized reliability.

My quick take on a very relevant program.