TDD Multi-Carrier Aggregation Builds Foundation For New 5G Advanced Experiences

Since its launch in 2019, 5G has experienced fast adoption surpassing all previous cellular generations. Yet despite this rapid adoption, operators are only beginning to monetise their 5G investments. Over the next few years, 5G Advanced will provide operators with much improved network capabilities that will enable them to offer a raft of innovative new applications as well as enhancing existing  consumer and business services.

The Benefits of 5G Advanced

While 5G essentially provided higher data rates compared to 4G, 5G Advanced will help operators enhance existing 5G networks making them more efficient, with superior uplink and downlink performance, higher throughput and capacity coupled with lower latency and improved network  reliability. 5G Advanced will also enable up to 100 billion device connections.

To a large extent, these enhancements will be enabled by the introduction of new 5G base station products such as advanced massive MIMO radios leveraging state-of-the-art multi-antenna and ultra-wideband technologies. 5G Advanced will also introduce new use cases such as passive IoT and Integrated Communications and Sensing (ICAS), two technologies with considerable potential to revolutionize mobile communications. 5G Advanced will also bring deeper integration of AI/ML across the network, including inside radios, devices and across networks, bringing  significant gains in network performance as well as improving mobility and coverage.

5G Advanced Will Need More Spectrum

In many cases, operators will need access to new spectrum in order to maximise the full potential of 5G Advanced. The last World Radio Conference (WRC-23) allocated more mid-band spectrum in the 3.5GHz band while the 6GHz band was designated as a mobile band in most regions. The emergence of 6GHz band spectrum will be important as it provides operators with an option to acquire more mid-band spectrum to support higher data transfer rates and increased network capacity, thus helping them to realize new service opportunities. In Europe, much of the 6GHz range is currently used for Wi-Fi, with only a modest amount of the band set aside for cellular use. However, the agreement at WRC-23 will allow more cellular access to the upper portion of this band in Region 1 (Europe, Africa, Middle East). This means that local operators have an opportunity to work with regulators to secure a larger amount of 6GHz spectrum.

Another important band is the millimetre band. Continuously rising data consumption plus 5G Advanced’s demand for more spectrum is reviving operator interest in the millimetre wave bands. However, although more than 140 operators worldwide have acquired millimetre wave spectrum, less than 5% of them have actually deployed any networks, due mainly to the limited coverage of millimetre wave cells. A good example of a millimetre wave network deployment is that of China Unicom Beijing, which has deployed a 5G Advanced network in Beijing’s financial district. The network leverages the latest Extra Large Antenna Array (ELAA) technology with high and low frequency coordination and serves as a benchmark demonstration of the commercial capabilities of millimetre wave spectrum.

Leveraging TDD Multi-Carrier Aggregation

5G Advanced heralds the start of the Multi-Gigabit era. TDD multi-carrier aggregation combines spectrum from different TDD frequency bands and is a proven method for augmenting data throughputs in wireless networks. It allows operators to increase network capacity, providing higher downlink data rates and increased coverage thereby allowing operators to maximise their spectrum assets. TDD multi-carrier aggregation can be used across 2.6GHz, 3.5GHz, C-band, 4.9GHz as well as millimetre bands such as 26GHz and 28GHz. The choice of 3GPP-specified 5G Component Carrier (CC) configurations, for example, 2CC, 3CC, 4CC, etc., continues to expand and enables multi-Gigabit 5G data rates across a wide variety of sub-6GHz and millimetre spectrum allocations globally.

In practice, operators have two primary options at the present time: use 3CC carrier aggregation to aggregate 200MHz of sub-6GHz spectrum or use 3CC in the U6G (6,425-7,125MHz) and millimetre wave bands to aggregate larger bandwidths exceeding 400MHz. With 3CC carrier aggregation in sub-6GHz, it is possible to achieve 5Gbps downlink speeds, i.e. 5 times the capability of current 5G. For example, China Mobile has achieved 5Gbps downlink throughput using 2.6GHz (100MHz & 60MHz) and 4.9GHz (100MHz) spectrum bands. However, millimetre wave spectrum is essential to reach 10Gbps. For example, China Unicom recently achieved a throughput of 10Gbps using 3CC in C-band (100MHz) and millimetre wave (800MHz) bands.

Services enabled by 5G Advanced

The improved network performance due to 5G Advanced will enable operators to enhance existing services by introducing more immersive mobile broadband offerings and improve connectivity in homes, enterprises and vehicles.

Enhanced mobile broadband – 5G Advanced will enable operators to introduce smarter, more interactive experiences which benefit from low-latency connectivity. For example, New Calling services, which introduce capabilities such as voice/video calls with real-time language translation, speech-to-text translation, screen sharing, interactive visual menus and enterprise ID cards.

UAE operator Du plans to use its 5G Advanced network to accelerate the introduction of 3D Internet-type services as well as offering services such as video calls, live video streaming, games and e-shopping, all of which require high-bandwidth and stable low latency connectivity in both uplink and downlink.

Connecting Homes – FWA-based 5G Advanced provides significantly more bandwidth and reduced latency thus making it possible to offer a range of FWA services across different markets. For example,   5G RedCap CPEs can offer downlink rates of up to 150 Mbps with 50% less power consumption compared to standard 5G CPEs. With RedCap CPEs expected to be priced around $40-$60, this could enable operators to target new markets such as homes without home broadband or served by lower-speed networks.

Operators could introduce a Home Plus type service by leveraging 5G Advanced-based FWA’s high downlink/low latency characteristics and guaranteed service quality offering. This would allow them to earn incremental revenue from existing subscribers by offering new services such as 8K video streaming, large scale cloud-gaming, home security monitoring and VR sports for multiple concurrent users. SMEs could be another new market. 5G Advanced could enable operators to offer  “super-uplink” type FWA services with low latencies and guaranteed uplink rates between 50Mbps to 1Gbps.

Connecting Things – 5G Advanced introduces a host of features to improve device connectivity. For example, improvements in RedCap will boost the ability of 5G-Advanced to support lower-performance and more affordable devices, which should open new business opportunities for operators, particularly in IoT. Another promising new use case is passive IoT. Next-generation passive IoT tags will have a range of over 200 metres, far exceeding that of RFID tags, and with a significantly lower cost per tag.

Connecting Enterprises and Vehicles – by leveraging its enhanced uplink characteristics, 5G Advanced will enable fully wireless-connected factories enabling flexible production, a key to digitalization in manufacturing while bringing new capabilities to vehicles, for example,  route planning beyond a driver’s line-of-sight, thus making transportation safer.

Operator Deployments

China Mobile has announced that it will launch 5G Advanced in more than 300 cities in China by the end of 2024 and has already launched services in around 100 cities. Full deployment across China is expected by the end of 2026. The operator expects that around 20 million devices and terminals will be shipped by the end of 2024. Key consumer services include New Calling, VIP Gbps, Cloud Phone and glasses-free 3D.

Other operators have also announced commercial 5G Advanced plans, including Beijing Unicom, Zain KSA and Finnish operator DNA. Beijing Unicom has announced that it will deploy 5,000 5G Advanced sites and will use TDD multi-carrier aggregation to provide high-bandwidth services. Zain is developing a 5G Advanced city in Riyadh and will showcase a number of 5G Advanced services, including enhanced FWA services. The operator plans to expand its 5G Advanced coverage to another eight cities by 2026. Meanwhile in Europe, Finnish operator DNA plans to launch a 5G FWA Gbps service.

Analyst Viewpoint

The improved network capabilities enabled by 5G Advanced will enrich the mobile experience for consumers and business users alike, while providing new monetization opportunities and service options for operators. This will allow them to expand existing services and earn incremental revenues through the introduction of  new speed or uplink-based tariffs and guaranteed service quality levels. As a result, Counterpoint Research believes that operators should start upgrading their networks to 5G Advanced as soon as possible to ensure they can offer the enhanced user experiences that will be expected by customers, as well as being ready for the accompanying surge in bandwidth demands.

Over the next few years, TDD multi-carrier aggregation will play a key role in the 5G Advanced network upgrade ensuring that operators can offer 5-10Gbps fibre-like downlink speeds, as well as providing improved low-latency and high-data uplink experiences – an acute problem with existing 5G. However, some technical challenges remain in relation to antennas and data processing requirements. For example, 3D or even higher-dimensional computing may be necessary to provide the required user experience. In addition, deploying large-scale commercial 5G Advanced networks will require more cell sites while multi-carrier aggregation will be more challenging if an operator’s spectrum is highly fragmented.

Clearly, the use of millimetre wave spectrum will be crucial to provide the ultimate user experience and maximise the potential of 5G Advanced for operators. However, several problems, such as overcoming high-frequency signal loss and achieving TDD uplink/downlink symmetry, need to be solved first. As a result, Counterpoint Research believes that 3CC carrier aggregation in the sub-6GHz bands will be the preferred choice by many operators as the first wave of 5G Advanced commercial networks are rolled out. However, leading infrastructure vendors are working to overcome the technical challenges associated with TDD multi-carrier aggregation and are confident that they will be able to offer competitive products in due course.

This blog was sponsored by Huawei. To learn about FDD Sub-3GHz Massive MIMO click here

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Gareth has been a technology analyst for over 20 years and has compiled research reports and market share/forecast studies on a range of topics, including wireless technologies, AI & computing, automotive, smartphone hardware, sensors and semiconductors, digital broadcasting and satellite communications.

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