PARTNER CONTENT: Telecoms leaders gathered at the 2022 Global Microwave Industry Forum, hosted by Huawei in Rome, Italy, to delve deeper into rising demands from the segment in the 5.5G era, which is tipped to pave the way towards transformational use cases across consumer and enterprise markets.

With 5G deployments in full swing around the world and use cases continuing to ramp up, both from a consumer and enterprise perspective, the industry continues unabated in the strive to evolve mobile network technology.

According to GSMA Intelligence, 208 operators in 79 markets have launched 5G to date, which is forecast to reach 421 operators by the end of 2025 and 642 by the end of 2030, considering the amount of trials currently taking place.

By the end of this year alone, the research arm estimates there will be 1 billion mobile 5G connections globally, figures which do not even take into account Fixed Wireless Access uptake.

And at a time when 5G momentum continues, Huawei is pioneering the shift towards the next-generation 5G Advanced, or 5.5G, which it believes will prove a key technological milestone on the path towards an intelligent world.

As we heard in Rome from numerous Huawei executives, in addition to wider industry experts, 5.5G will unlock immersive services like extended reality, holographic communications and indeed the metaverse, supported by a touted 10 times increase in connectivity from 1Gbp/s to 10Gbp/s.

Mobile DoUs will further surge from 15GB to 100Gb, which in turn means the requirements for latency and ubiquitous connectivity will also increase.

The consumer push aside, digital transformation will also begin to accelerate in the 5.5G era, with smart manufacturing being one of many industries benefitting from superior advanced connectivity.

Naturally, to support the rise in the connectivity experience, microwave backhaul must also be front and centre in the wider conversation.

Setting the stage and opening the event in Rome, David Wang, Executive Director at Huawei, described microwave “as a pivotal technology in mobile networking”, which had “supported the constant evolution” of next-generation networks.

Wang (pictured) stated that more than 60% of wireless sites still use microwave, with it being the trusted choice for operators around the world for 5G backhaul. The microwave backhaul market in particular enjoyed more than 10% year on year growth in the first half of 2022, with 5G driving much of this momentum, added Wang.

As 5.5G comes to the fore, and with it that 10-fold increase in RAN speed, Wang explained this is expected to create “new requirements in both backhaul capacity and link range”.

“New 5G services will demand more in terms of latency,” said Wang. “Operators will soon need to meet new energy conservation and network evolution requirements and a whole new generation of microwave technology can help.”

With 10 times-higher capacity, ultra-long-distance transmission, deterministic latency, ultra-dense deployment and elastic green intelligent networks, Wang believes that like the ICT segment, the microwave industry must now “get ready for 5.5G”.

Industry primed for 5.5G
Bocar BA, CEO of the SAMENA Council, Chairman of ITU’s Industry Advisory Group for Development Issues and  Commissioner, UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, turned the conversation to next-generation developments in the Middle East, noting all GCC states had now launched 5G commercial services.

Indeed, BA (pictured) hailed the region as something of a trailblazer on the 5G front, not only in terms of early adoption but also for data transmission speeds, applications and healthcare use cases, while adding the technology was enabling the transformation of a range of industries including oil and gas.

He said the SAMENA council felt 5G infrastructure developments, particularly in the Middle East, had been carried out successfully due to advancements in fibre, cloud, latest radio access and of course, microwave backhaul.

“In the past three years, microwave has played a major role in 5G rollouts in the region. This, in part, is due to technological advances in microwave system software and new radio hardware. Microwave transport capacity has moved from hundreds of megabit-per-second capacity to tens of gigabit-per-second capacity. Microwave based transport has also continued to offer low-cost, quick installation and reliable secure operations,” noted Ba.

Matthew Iji, Director of Data Modelling and Forecasting at GSMA Intelligence, took to the stage in Rome following BA to discuss findings from a survey conducted by the research arm of the GSMA, which assessed the demand and market view of 5.5G before it is fully released.

Iji (pictured) stated that with advanced specifications expected in the next three years, most operators will not deploy the technology in the year that it is released, but the majority do expect to have some 5G-Advanced play as part of their network portfolio in the following two to four years.

However, the MENA region bucks the trend in this regard, where 80% of operators expect a launch within a year of standards being set.

“This means that as we move into the second half of the 2020s, networks must be ready to take on an even higher and more complex load,” said Iji.

GSMA Intelligence’s survey appeared to indicate that industry players are indeed aware of this challenge, with operators expecting an even split in investment between operations and billing, RAN, service core, packet core and transport network.

Iji explained that operators expect an investment of 20% of their budgets in the transport network.

“As 5G progresses towards 5.5G Advanced, the transport network needs to be able to meet the requirements of capacity and densification,” he said.

Capacity requirements for 5G also came out on top when operators consider which backhaul technology they opt to use, with high-capacity backhaul required to support cell sites as 5G progresses and the number of cites increases.

Costs, reliability, latency, time to deploy and range were also important considerations for operators, added Iji.

To that end, he noted that while a small amount of copper remained, and satellite was still in use for niche use cases, fibre and microwave were now the dominant backhaul technologies.

However, for microwave to truly thrive in the 5.5G era, both Iji and the SAMENA Council’s BA made recommendations to overcome existing challenges.

BA explained microwave backhaul will make it possible for 5G and 5.5G to be connected with a larger footprint, but as operators are already aware, site construction to a large extent depends on the availability of backhaul.

“In the Middle East and Africa, this was especially true with more than 80% of sites backhauled by microwave. With 5G capable microwave, supported by a sound 5G wireless backhaul strategy, it may be possible to get thousands of sites connected within a short span of a few months, while providing superior experience for end-users in line with quality-of-service trends already reported in the region,” he said.

Furthermore, BA added the total cost of ownership profile of microwave backhaul continued “to be an attractive decision-making factor for 5G and upcoming 5.5G deployments”.

Iji meanwhile estimated microwave will make up 60% of backhaul in 2025, but since that will be at an advanced stage of 5G, “it is even more essential that appropriate frequency bands are available and in use”.

“New backhaul bands are needed to meet evolving network requirements and growing traffic due to increasing saturation, capacity constraints and the refarming of some bands,” he added.

E-band to thrive
Speaking of spectrum bands, the focus at the Global Microwave Industry Forum then fell specifically to advancements in E-band, which Renato Lombardi, Huawei Fellow and Chair of the ETSI ISG mWT, described as the fastest growing segment in the industry.

Lombardi (pictured) cited analysts statistics that had found E-band would power 50% of the connections In microwave backhaul in three to four years from now, with more than 70% of base stations worldwide connected by wireless backhaul.

“E-band is of course what we need to deliver the capacity that we have seen coming from 5G,” he said.

Perry Yang, President of Microwave Product Line at Huawei, concurred, forecasting E-band as the number one band choice, powering 50% of all microwave by 2027.

During his presentation, Yang further spoke in-depth about Huawei’s 5.5G vision, coupled with the company’s definition for the next-generation of microwave, which it has dubbed “Magicswave”.

Yang (pictured) explained that “Magicswave” covered six distinct pillars, designed to aid the microwave backhaul transition to 5.5G.

The first pillar is Mega capacity, considering a 10-fold increase in connectivity generated from 5.5G; the second is Automation and green, emerging lower power consumption and synergy with the RAN; number three is Coverage; fourth on the list is Increased density providing 3 times more spectrum efficiency; Guaranteed latency is number five and finally its vision targets a Scalable network covering elastic topology and scalable capacity.

For Yang, this next-generation of microwave can cover 10 more years of mobile network evolution. Indeed, its next-generation architecture can deliver 50Gbp/s air capacity and 25Gbp/s rates to sites, helping mobile networks move more easily to 5.5G.

“For wireless, one generation lasts 10 years. So, for microwave, based on our definition, 10 more times capacity means microwave must support this in a cost effective and affordable way,” he said.

Yang added that he had the confidence that E-band would be the most important band to support long-term evolution and “has enough potential to match 5.5G, and even 6G, in terms of spectrum efficiency, distance and capacity”.

Managing microwave
Of course, E-Band is important in the microwave segment, but work is also being done to advance wider spectrum requirements for the industry.

Lombardi spoke of ETSI and the operator’s work in defining a new set of KPIs for microwave and millimetre wave backhaul networks.

Work on this actually began a few years ago, said Lombardi, designed to introduce new KPIs for the evaluation of performance and availability of wireless backhaul to avoid over-engineering of hops, or equivalently, extend hop lengths especially for E-Band and band aggregation.

The scope of the work also looks at making wireless backhaul part of the overall end to end network, “moving from availability of a backhaul capacity to the availability of traffic” according to RAN requirements.

Other requirements from the work include weighing backhaul outage probability with the probability distribution of RAN traffic, define targets for backhaul traffic availability on the basis of end-to-end quality of experience of end users and a definition of Committed Information Rates based on BTS survivability and very high value traffic.

He said the GSMA had realised the importance of backhaul recently, as the mobile organisation started a taskforce that brought together a range of industry players to tackle the issue of the backhaul spectrum crunch and costs.

By 2026-2027, Lombardi believes “we could see more than 60% of connections to base stations still carried out with wireless backhaul”.

“This is really the challenge and the opportunity. From a technology sense and in terms of research and development we need to find solutions, so that we meet the requirements in terms of capacity, latency and TCO.”

GSMA Intelligence’s Iji added that wider channel sizes are now required to maintain the relevance of traditional microwave bands. “Regulators should make available sufficient amounts of spectrum and support wider channel sizes to best support evolving mobile services and uptake,” he said.

All roads lead to 5.5G
According to Liangliang Li, 5.5G chief technical expert at Huawei, the company’s vision for the next iteration of 5G provides the industry with the technology that can truly tap into business opportunities such as the metaverse and AR and VR use cases, considering speed and latency advancements.

To cope with the advances, he also agreed that the microwave backhaul push will be equally important to support the evolution to 10Gb/s user experience, supporting a target of 100 billion IoT connections, intelligence in the network and finally, green initiatives.

SAMENA’s BA further acknowledged that with 5G now a widespread reality, 5.5G was a new emerging reality. “It is a key stepping stone towards entering into the intelligent world we have talked about over the last half a decade,” he said.

Going forward, the SAMENA council too will pay “more attention to the needs of the microwave industry in order to foster 5.5G and to inspire more innovation and development on this front,” added Ba.

Huawei’s Wang concluded by adding that the company “was dedicated to accelerating digital transformation and building a fully connected intelligent world.”

And the vendor won’t stop there.

“As part of this endeavour, we will continue our investment in innovative microwave technology,” he said.