Antenna’s that can control their own beam shape, what?!? Control the beam on demand? How can that be? Beamforming is a little more complicated than that.
First, a quick, high level, history lesson.
I don’t know how familiar you are with antennas, but they must be installed correctly. You could physically tilt the antenna a few degrees to match your coverage. It’s like azimuth, that must be appropriately aligned for coverage. Older antennas were installed with a set “up tilt” or “down tilt.” They were fixed in tilt and azimuth. So, what they saw is what they heard, based on the antennas fixed pattern. The antenna pattern would determine what the antenna could hear and talk to. That was it, very simple. I know, there is gain, but for the sake of argument, let’s say they would talk to UE devices in their specific coverage area.
Then there was evolution! There were new ways to control tilt. CommScope had RET, Remote Electrical Tilt, for this purpose. I think it was a good idea, but it’s still a physical system. Basically, if I understand this, it’s an actuator that can change adjust the tilt + or – 3 or more degrees. However, it opened options to the end-user, the carriers, where they did not need a tower crew to adjust the tilt. Pretty cool!
How does it work?
Now a new type of evolution, beamforming!
With beamforming, none of the physical alignment goes away; we still need the proper tilt and azimuth to get started. Beamforming is done by very smart antennas, but the carriers did not have the corner on this technology. As a matter of fact, the Wi-Fi vendors have made significant advances in this technology. They did a great job getting 802.11 to do this. The BTS controls the beam from there so that the antenna can do its thing. Again, they all must work together to make this happen.
Where did this idea come from? Don’t let the carriers or OEMs fool you; it came from Wi-Fi. In fact, I believe one of the pioneers in beamforming was Ruckus! That’s right, the carrier-grade Wi-Fi OEM. Also, I must give credit to Linksys for putting the technology in their home Wi-Fi routers. Awesome! Thank you to Network World for making a video on this, (link is below in “Learn More” section).
Massive MIMO puts that on steroids. It takes the signal, both ways, and focuses on a user. If you have 64 by 64, then, in theory, you can focus on 64 individual users on that antenna. The idea is to hear users you want to hear at any moment. This allows the radio to talk to specific users simultaneously without sharing precious spectrum. How can they focus? Beamforming is how they do it. They employ a technique called 3D beamforming that dimensions the signal from that element in 3D, 3 dimensions. Beamforming will focus the beam on the specific user.
Now the carriers are asking the OEMs to take it to the next level. It is the cornerstone of making massive MIMO even more useful.
You see, massive MIMO relies on the beamforming technology to make it more efficient and push even more bandwidth through it! It is a crucial factor, like carrier aggregation. It all has to work together.
Now, by controlling the beam to match the user’s antenna, it becomes more efficient in several ways. Signal strength helps, but now the spectrum stream can be dedicated to that specific user the duration of the conversation. Not only the best signal possible but a dedicated conversation with that unit for a limited time.
Massive MIMO takes this to a new level. Now the angle of delivery can be controlled. WOW! That is specific to the user based on each element. Assuming it really works that way, the antenna will have to be smart. This is called 3D beamforming, looking at all 3 dimensions. It’s steering the beam to match the end-user, basically taking a lobe that focuses all 3 dimensions to the user’s antenna. Almost like a microwave shot to the antenna. Beamforming is shaping the beam to match that of the UE device. The antenna will narrow the beam so that it is only talking to the device or devices that you want it to talk to and not the surrounding units.
That makes the antenna elements very efficient. This increases the number of devices the antenna can talk to as well as increasing the throughput to each device with a dedicated stream from each element.
Remember that the antenna will need power now since the radio heads are in the antenna and the elements need to be agile. The elements will control the beamforming, and they need to have control signals sent to them. It’s a whole new level of technology.
MIMO helps to utilize beamforming by using the radiators in the antenna to focus on specific users and not “hear” everything. That’s the key, listen to what matters and forget the rest.
By the way, if you want to get technical. Try one of the links below. I am providing a view of what a field worker would need to know. If you’re in a classroom or device design, research the details. I just need to know how it’s going to work with massive MIMO and in the real world. I am in the real world of deployment, that’s what I worry about. If you want to see more detail, I would start here, http://home.iitk.ac.in/~javeda/PhD_SOTA.pdf to learn more.
Why does it matter?
The OEMs figured out that if Wi-Fi can use beamforming so efficiently for license free, then there must be something they can use it for licensed spectrum. At first, it didn’t seem like much because the carriers are always listening for subscribers. Then came MIMO, and suddenly it seemed like a game changer.
With MIMO they would use the spectrum more efficiently, especially using OFDM. Then they would pass more data, more bandwidth in the same spectrum, awesome.
Now, enter massive MIMO, the big daddy of antennas and data throughput. It’s a landslide of data that can use the spectrum efficiently to more than 32 users simultaneously! It makes the 8×8 MIMO look pathetic!
It matters because to get the data throughput we all crave to multiple used efficiently in the spectrum we have; we need to utilize every tool we can, like MIMO, carrier aggregation, and beamforming. Although, no one will mention beamforming when discussing massive MIMO because it’s expected to be there. In fact, it’s what makes MIMO so impressive! (In my opinion.)
What spectrum does beamforming work in?
As far as I can tell it works me any spectrum. There are arguments to put it on the higher spectrum, but the reality is that I have read reports that it will work in 2GHz to 70GHz. I mean it works in Wi-Fi. What I don’t know is if it will work below 1GHz. I see that many say sub 6GHz, but I haven’t read about anyone using it below 2GHz, to be honest.
I think the carriers will get it working on all their spectrum; they need to get it rolling. Whether it’s FDD or TDD, it will be the foundation for massive bandwidth to the end-user. It’s a matter of how to reach the user.
Who will use it? (Looking at the USA only.)
You mean after all the Wi-Fi vendors? They are already using beamforming and, massive MIMO because it really helps throughput. Then the carriers are all going to use this. It means changes at the sites. New antennas, upgraded BTS systems, and even backhaul and fronthaul upgrades. This all must be upgraded.
They all want it though, they all want to serve the public. The question is how? Anyone working with massive MIMO will use beamforming. Beamforming is a hidden X-factor. As I have been telling you, massive MIMO is a huge stepping stone towards 5G evolution. Whether it’s fixed or mobile, it’s a critical component.
For instance, if you read Verizon and AT&T press releases you see that they intend to deliver high-speed broadband to homes via cmwave and mmwave. They intend to open new markets to the end-user that would, in my opinion, compete directly with any cable company’s model. Get ready Comcast! You will have competition from more than satellite.
I would like to say Sprint could do this. They have the perfect spectrum in 2.5GHz for beamforming and massive MIMO, but can they get out of their own way to deploy? Your guess is as good as mine! I know they want to do it, and they could do it, but can they execute? They may need some help.
T-Mobile has more spectrum in the 600MHz range. I think when the technology is ready and proven, (and the bugs are worked out), they will jump on this. However, will they do it in the 600MHz spectrum? I don’t know, ask John Legere, I am sure he has an answer. I certainly don’t want to speak for him, but I know once they get this technology and have faith in it, they will go crazy to get it out there to remain faster than anybody else in urban areas.
The cable companies, meaning Comcast and the others, should be eager to do this, but I don’t see them aggressively doing anything with it. I see them investing, (even more), in Wi-Fi. They must see the writing on the wall! We all see LTE throughput matching and passing Wi-Fi speeds, yet, they don’t seem worried. They even saw John Legere mention how he was going to go after them, yet, they seem very relaxed, (maybe overconfident). I don’t get it, but they’ve been successful Only a few cable companies are debt-ridden. They seem to be doing something right by staying out of the mobile arena. They have a corner on the suburban markets for sure, but the urban markets may start falling behind. They should look at history, like paging, 2-way paging, and the Tom-Tom GPS, all replaced by the smartphone. Those carriers are smart to erode other businesses, so they can have more of other market shares. I can already use my cell phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Why cable companies should pay attention.
I would heed what John Legere says about cable companies, even though Comcast’s approval rating is up. T-Mobile already proved they could change the stubborn wireless industry. He singlehandedly destroyed contracts and lowered costs and built a following for unlimited data plans. I believe that he could do the same for cable subscribers, mainly because millennials rely more on their devices than ever.
Personal story, my son was living in Ann Arbor Michigan, in a program at the University of Michigan. When he was there, he didn’t have a cable subscription. He did have an internet connection to them and Wi-Fi, but he complained about it all the time. As a young single man, he relied on his laptop for all his video viewing, movies, and YouTube. He didn’t watch TV on cable; he watches it on his TV with his iMac feeding the TV. He didn’t rely on any cable box or anything, just Netflix and YouTube. My point here is that millennials look at broadcast utterly different. They know that all you need is the internet, then you can watch whatever you want. He didn’t care how it got to his apartment if he had Wi-Fi inside and it was fast. He would have been just as happy getting it from his iPhone instead of Comcast, but AT&T was too slow and didn’t have the best coverage in that area. So, he got Comcast, and it worked fine.
The moral of that story is that the new generations could care less how they get internet access. All they want is a connection. They rely on apps to do the rest. Whether it’s entertainment or voice, it’s an app. They use Skype like we used to use a phone. It’s an app that matters.
What about you? What do you rely on? I know one thing, in the next 5 years you will rely on beamforming and not even know it. Like massive MIMO, and carrier aggregation, you will use it all, but not be aware of any of it.
What about the industry?
Let me tell you something; beamforming will be part of the new massive MIMO systems coming out. The carriers are hoping this is the last time they need to replace equipment at the site. The new equipment is getting smaller and lighter. Not to mention energy-efficient. This means that future expansions are going to be made with software as often as possible.
This will be part of the massive MIMO deployment, which means for the next 4 or 5 years, tower crews will be ramping up to get the massive MIMO systems out there. We need active antennas to see this work properly.
Carriers don’t want to pay deployment teams anymore, they have already eroded the cost to the point where many companies have run out of the industry. The industry has changed, the carriers want to reduce cost, the first place they usually hit is deployment, everyone but Verizon. Verizon is #1 in coverage for a reason; they invest where it matters. Field deployments should be scaling down after 2022, and the OEM licensing and software should be scaling up.
Side note for the field work. As training requirements went up, costs went down. To prove this point, someone compared it to a diesel mechanic that gets over $120/hour to work on an engine. That guy needs tools and training and works in his own garage. The tower climbers need their tools, a warehouse, safety training, skills training, and more tools and trucks. The only thing is, the chances of the diesel mechanic getting paid is much better than the tower crew without the travel and putting your life at risk daily. Who wouldn’t take that trade? Nuff said!
Backhaul and fronthaul are going to increase which is good news for fiber and fiber deployment. Its usage gets heavier, just like I said for massive MIMO, https://wade4wireless.com/2017/11/27/what-is-massive-mimo/. Same deal.
Fiber companies always win in something like this, why wouldn’t they?
Wireless OEMs are hoping they can build something that could be out there for over 10 years, something they can sell a license to for scaling. Can this happen, I doubt it. If they can build something that will be out there for over 5 years that can be improved remotely through software, then the carriers will be in love, until they get the reoccurring bill for the licenses they must pay. It’s still cheaper than deployment.
As for the carriers, they will all try to gain bragging rights. They all will try to be faster, better, and cost competitive. I would say “most reliable, but I think we all know that Sprint with their latest advertising campaign of, “Sure, they’re better, but we’re cheaper” pretty much diffuses that argument. It’s like saying; we’re #4, why try harder. Trust me, I know people that work at Sprint, and they work really hard and put in long hours. Personally, I don’t know why management would belittle the workers with that campaign, (again, my opinion).
Be smart, be safe, and pay attention!
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