In 2019, Gartner put 5G at the absolute peak of its ‘Hype Cycle’ for emerging technologies. When it comes to the telecoms industry delivering on 5G, it is not unreasonable to say that we are still in the hype stage. The expectation from analysts is we will now see the technology fail to live up to that hype and enter a period of disillusionment where 5G is not the game changer the industry expected or promised.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the reality, as operators have so far focused their efforts on low-band 5G. Although it is tangibly faster than its 4G predecessor, it is still only 20% faster than existing networks and this just isn’t enough to avoid disillusionment or disappointment. Recent mmWave 5G trials on the other hand, have demonstrated speeds up to 8 times faster than 4G. This seems to be much more capable of delivering the promises of 5G; self-driving cars, m-health technology, but there is still a big question mark over if mmWave 5G can work on a commercial scale.
There are three big problems when it comes to 5G using mmWave frequencies.
- Penetration – mmWave is easily blocked; buildings, poor weather, even a user’s hand can block a signal. This makes offering mmWave 5G, particularly in dense urban areas where we see the greatest number of potential use cases tricky.
- Range – Next, the limited range of mmWave. These frequencies only have a range of around 300 meters, that is a staggering 50x less than 4G. The result is that significantly more equipment is needed to deliver consistent reliable coverage.
- Cost – With the greater volume of equipment, comes the need for significantly higher infrastructure investment. The implications of this are compounded as mmWave must use advanced technologies such as beam-steering for effective coverage which come with a much higher price tag, as well as increased power consumption, upping the running costs.
Making mmWave 5G a reality
At ALCAN we have developed a way to solve these problems with our Liquid Crystal based phased array solutions. Using Liquid Crystal, we have developed low-cost, low-power, low profile antennas that tackle the major challenges of mmWave 5G head on. Using Liquid Crystal as the core material of the phased array enables us to deliver beam-steering that is essential for mmWave 5G at a fraction of the cost. The nature of the material also results in lower power usage minimising the ongoing running costs and making is possible to cost effectively deploy the volume of equipment needed.
This core technology can take a number of forms, relay antennas for city deployments, Customer Premises Equipment (CPE), all with a low CAPEX and OPEX cost which makes building the infrastructure for mmWave 5G a commercially viable prospect.
But there is an additional, unique advantage when we come to CPE. With mmWave 5G blocked by buildings, to successfully deliver any form of in-door coverage requires equipment, which can be both expensive and unsightly.
A clear solution
Using Liquid Crystal gives us a way to truly address the issue of very visible equipment, not just with a slim form factor, but a transparent one. Liquid Crystal is by its very nature a transparent substance. This can be it is held together with glass – also transparent, and have the metal/conductive elements of the antenna printed in a way that cannot be seen by the human eye. The result is a transparent antenna that still has a high level of functionality as it still makes the most of the low-cost beam-steering technology made possible by using Liquid Crystal for phased array antennas
The possibilities for transparent smart antennas are endless and open 5G doors that were not thought possible with current technologies. These antennas could be integrated into windows to deliver reliable, consistent 5G in-building, hugely expanding the possibilities of what can be achieved with 5G.
Beyond this, there is an opportunity to install this technology to enable connected cars. Transparent antennas can be integrated into sunroofs, plus, given that mmWave works in similar frequency bands to satellite means we can make this a hybrid satellite/5G antenna, so where 5G isn’t available, the systems can use a satellite failover. Even consumer handsets can benefit from the integration of a transparent smart antenna into their screen. Given the display is typically visible at all times it can deliver navigate the challenge of signal being blocked by a user’s hand.
When it comes to mmWave 5G, traditional infrastructure solutions are not fit for purpose, and pursuing them will only prolong the period of disillusionment associated with 5G. Innovation has to be at the heart of investments in 5G equipment. For those that look to new approaches such as Liquid Crystal based smart antennas, they can not only solve the problems barring the way to mmWave 5G but take advantage of the additional benefits of the solution to explore new opportunities.
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