Beamforming and the Next Generation of Mobility Featured

6 months ago
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Beamforming and the Next Generation of Mobility Image Credit: Bigstockphoto.com/Oksana Shmatok

While 5G will usher in the next generation of mobile connectivity, some of its core technologies aren’t as cutting edge as one might think.

Beamforming, for example, isn’t new or something that’s being specifically designed for 5G - the technology has already been used for decades to manage low-frequency signals in advanced technologies like military radar and Wi-Fi. It just hasn’t mattered as much to mobile network operators or 5G-compatible device designers until now.

Breaking down beamforming

If beamforming isn’t a familiar term, it’s essentially being viewed by mobile device manufacturers and network carriers as a viable data traffic management system for 5G signals. By enabling endpoints to receive beams that have intentionally been bounced off surrounding surfaces at precise angles, mobile data can be communicated more efficiently than ever - even if it means bouncing individual data packets off different surfaces in different directions to deliver them to a device.

Moving forward, beamforming will only become more necessary as 5G networks start to implement Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output (MIMO) base stations. Unlike 4G base stations that can only contain a maximum of 12 antenna ports, 5G’s MIMO base stations can use up to 100, giving mobile technology and network providers the potential to expand global connectivity and accelerate data communication speeds beyond its predecessor’s limitations. However, to do so these organizations will have to take advantage of beamforming first.

Unsurprisingly, record-setting data speeds and nearly ten times the number of antennas doesn’t make 5G mobile technology any easier to manage. On a global scale, MIMO base stations create an increased likelihood of mobile network interference and more crossed signals than we’ve ever seen, so device manufacturers must find a way to integrate a variety of 5G-compatible technologies into their products before they can ensure consumers will experience consistent connectivity for these advanced endpoints.

While they may sound like obscure terms right now, don’t be surprised to see and hear more about innovations like millimeter wave receivers, small cells, and full duplex receivers as time goes by and 5G grows closer to becoming reality. While these tools may not be important to today’s mobile networks, device manufacturers will quickly find out how essential these technologies are to the world of 5G.

Say hello to new wavelengths, too

Beamforming has helped everyone successfully manage low-frequency signals and spectrums for years, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready for 5G connectivity. At least not yet. After all, this next-gen standard uses millimeter wavelengths that span 30 to 300 Gigahertz (GHz) - a frequency much higher than the ones beamforming has been proven to work with so far. Since regulators have specifically set aside this band of frequencies for mobile 5G connectivity, however, it’s up to technology innovators to make sure beamforming reliably works within this evolved mobility landscape.

In addition to these new frequencies and wavelengths (as well as any unforeseen consequences that result), individuals and organizations adopting 5G early will also need to plan for a significant mobile network infrastructure upgrade. While beamforming works in its traditional setting with only a handful of antennas, managing millimeter waves across high-frequency bands becomes more expensive—and could require as many as 256 antennas to function properly.

Without beamforming, communicating 5G’s shortened wavelengths across any high-frequency spectrum is almost impossible to guarantee. Data signals are easily blocked or absorbed by obstacles in transit, and most lack the strength to communicate across long distances.

In fact, the severity of these challenges causes some mobile technology providers to question if 5G will ever be as profitable as people think. Will numerous network upgrades and investments force consumers to pay higher premiums? And, if so, will enough mobile users see value in 5G to be willing to pay extra for this service?

The future is far from certain, but global experts expect mobile endpoint manufacturers to build beamforming capabilities directly into their 5G-compatible devices—if they aren’t doing so already. This not only means stronger, more reliable data signals for users, but an overall reduction in 5G network interference for everybody else as well.

But wait, there’s more!

Mobile device manufacturers and network providers are also leveraging something else to make beamform-managed millimeter wave transmission work even better. By combining MIMO with advanced beam tracking algorithms, 5G technology will be enabled to continuously search for and identify network connectivity issues. In theory, this means beam tracking will proactively move user data communications to another channel if any problems arise, creating a seamless 5G experience.

This innovation not only creates the potential for carriers to free up tremendous amounts of mobile network bandwidth, but also eliminates the major weakness of using beamforming to manage millimeter wavelengths in the process. Unfortunately, today’s most advanced beam tracking solutions are still highly susceptible to path loss and absorption. Even small barriers created by cars or other people can interrupt this technology when it’s busy deciphering which 5G signals are in range and offer the most stable connectivity.

For global endpoint makers like Qualcomm, the answer seems to be inserting multiple 5G antenna arrays into each product. That way, beam tracking can create a data communication path between two devices even if obstacles prevent transmission through some of the sensors. As others implement these next-generation technologies going forward, beamforming and beam tracking will increase the chances of effective and reliable 5G connectivity for the masses.

Chris Koeneman is Senior Vice President at MOBI. He has extensive experience in developing go-to-market strategies for technology organisations, and has held leadership positions with AT&T, Intel and Cisco, among others, as well as innovative startups. Chris has led global teams focused on networking infrastructure, cloud services, and virtualisation solutions sold through OEMs, channel partners and direct, and has been part of two successful wireless acquisitions.

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