Industry Voices—Madden: mmWave akin to Evel Knievel moment for 5G?

Joe Madden

Remember Evel Knievel? He jumped over 13 buses on his motorcycle. He tried to jump the Snake River Gorge. He performed hundreds of risky stunts, and survived to a nice old age. I always had respect for his courage, to hit the ramp at top speed. But nobody knew what would happen, including Evel himself.

The millimeter wave (mmWave) market feels the same as a high-speed motorcycle jump. The operators have invested heavily in radio units this year, and they’re racing up the ramp now. The initial handsets have arrived on the market, and initial fixed services are available in selected places. The American operators are committed to this, and can’t back out now! Will they crash—or land safely?  

It sounds like a risky plan, and big companies like Verizon and AT&T don’t engage in risky behavior without a reason. They’re taking this flying leap because they need the capacity. According to our calculations, both companies will run out of LTE capacity soon in major urban areas, despite the use of small cells, LAA, and other network tricks. So, in Manhattan, San Francisco, and in every NFL stadium, millimeter wave capacity is a necessity, not a science experiment.

The early reviews on mmWave have been disappointing… coverage gaps, inconsistent throughputs, and NLOS links that appear and disappear again. The wheels on the bike are a little wobbly here!

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The main weak point in the mmWave ecosystem is the uplink. The base station transmits enough power to achieve gigabit speeds in the downlink, but the uplink must connect from the client device to the gNodeB, so that the Massive MIMO beamforming can function in a closed loop.

Uplink performance is limited by the RF amplifier. Today, millimeter wave handsets and other mobile devices all use the Qualcomm RF front end, which has poor performance in terms of power level and efficiency/battery power usage. It’s not possible to boost power with today’s Qualcomm device without overheating the phone.  

However, other RF vendors are showing much higher performance. We expect to see RF solutions with as much as 5X higher power in a handset with less heat. Over the next year, we are likely to see handsets, mobile hotspots, and CPEs that solve some of the major coverage gaps in 5G mmWave services.  

We published an opinion two years ago, highlighting our concern for mmWave in a handheld device where the hand covers the antenna. We have repeatedly predicted that the market will struggle at first, then realign on hotpsots, PCs, CPEs, or other options. Our prediction appears now to be correct, as the sales of mmWave phones have been disappointingly low, at only about 200,000 handsets through September 2019. This is partially explained by the limited reach of the U.S. network, but a similar coverage area in Seoul, South Korea, now has 15X more subscribers, using non-millimeter wave 5G phones. The mmWave market is simply not getting as much consumer traction as the C-band market.

The operators are committed to their flying leap, and they’re putting infrastructure into the field. But there are some adjustments to make on our bike before we try to land. Having a high power transmitter for a CPE or handset is the key to success here. Evel Knievel lived through hundreds of death-defying stunts because he had a wide ramp to land on. Let’s get to work—so that we can hit the landing.

Joe Madden is principal analyst at Mobile Experts, a network of market and technology experts that analyze wireless markets. The team provides detailed research on small cell, base station, carrier Wi-Fi, and IoT markets. Madden currently focuses on trends in 5G, IoT, and enterprise markets for wireless infrastructure. Over 26 years in mobile communications, he accurately predicted the rise of digital predistortion, remote radio heads, small cells, and a mobile IT market. He validates his ideas with mobile and cable operators, as well as semiconductor suppliers, to find the match between business models and technology. Madden holds a physics degree from UCLA. Despite learning about economics at Stanford, he still obeys the laws of physics.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.