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Podcast: Boost Network Capacity while Getting Ready for 5G

Ericsson’s research shows that by 2022, mobile data traffic will increase a whopping eight-fold. Mobile networks will serve 7.7 billion mobile broadband subscriptions and 1.5 billion cellular Internet of Things devices worldwide. In this episode, we talk about how using spectrum more efficiently will serve the growing bit/second/cell demand on networks today and in the era of 5G.

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Pam talks to Paul Challoner (VP Network Product Solutions for Ericsson North America) about getting ready for 5G -- boosting network capacity to meet growing demand by increasing spectral efficiency.

Paul Challoner, VP Network Product Solutions for Ericsson North America 


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Pam MALLETTE: Welcome back to 15 minutes of 5G – a bi-weekly discussion with the industries’ big brains about the latest developments in 5G and what they mean for consumers, businesses and society in general. Today we’re talking with Paul Challoner, VP Network Product Solutions for Ericsson North America about a new radio from Ericsson that will help operators support growing demands today and in the future.

MALLETTE: Welcome Paul, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today.

Paul CHALLONER: Thanks for having me Pam.

MALLETTE: Let me begin by asking about that big picture. So, Ericsson’s research shows that by 2022 mobile data traffic is going to increase like a whopping 8-fold. It’s ridiculous. Most mobile networks would serve 7.7 billion mobile broadband subscriptions and 1.5 billion cellular IoT devices worldwide. More than 75% of that mobile data traffic is meant to be video including virtual reality, augmented reality and even 3D. That’s a massive increase. Do you think it’s reasonable to say that it’s the biggest jump the industry has ever seen in such a short period of time?

CHALLONER: Yes, this really is a disruption in the capacity growth curve. It’s an exciting time in this industry. It’s really a new inflection point caused by number of new factors. For example, unlimited data plans are now the norm and the trends of unlimited everything will extend us giving users lower effective pricing per gigabyte, reinforcing that growth. We’re seeing operators adding 30 to 50% extra traffic as a result of some of these new plans. Accelerating digitalization of our lives where everything is web based ‒ we buy everything on the web, we have it delivered by drones, and we control our houses by talking to voice assistants, it’s really the age of IoT.

But pervasive video usage is the main driver. Last year in 2016, 50%, half of traffic, was video but in 2022, it’s going to be three-quarters: 75%. This is the dominant growth factor. Screen time is increasing but also the resolution of that video is getting better, 4k then 8K, UHD (ultra-high definition), 3D video offerings, higher frames per second are all driving data rates. It’s outpacing video codec advances, more and more data for each minute of video watched. So, you mentioned VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality), they are becoming mainstream from oculus rift to google glass. VR is mainly an indoor data driver, but mixed reality and augmented reality, where the virtual world is superimposed over the real world, will be an outdoor mobility driver delivered over mobile devices.

These services are latency sensitive so require low latency networks like 5G but really these are the factors contributing to growth. The business challenge is that operators are flattening service revenues so want improvements in costs per bit to improve profitability and capex efficiency. 5G delivers solutions for high-speed, low-latency and ultra-reliable systems and improves the cost per bit.  5G opens up yet more use cases driving even more wireless data. That’s really the key right now is how to reduce the cost per bit while handling all this wireless data.

MALLETTE: Wow! That seems to be big challenge and there is a lot going on. How are those operators planning to meet all those demands like what are they doing now to prepare in order to kind of deliver that consistently high performance and app coverage and satisfy consumers and their business customers. Seems like a lot that they have to do? 

CHALLONER: Yeah, it’s tough. Firstly, we need to recognize the problem. There are about three million sites in metropolitan areas globally and about 20% of the time smart devices don’t get sufficient speed. We typically set uplink speed of about 300 kilobits and 3 megabits per second down is what’s needed. When the uplink is the limiting factor, it’s typically a coverage problem and when the downlink is the bottleneck, it’s really a capacity issue. What we need to address is that this situation is only going to get worse.

There are three levels an operator can control to add capacity:

  • Firstly, you can build more sites to densify,
  • secondly, you can acquire and deploy more spectrum, or
  • finally, improve spectral efficiency of existing spectrum.

So, each has a pro and a con. Site densification is effective but is sometimes not practical in dense urban areas. It’s tough to find sites, zoning is a lengthy process, lease costs can be high and the normal challenges of adding sites. Adding spectrum can also be costly. You might have to wait for the next auction, it takes time to clear new spectrum and it’s a scarce commodity. So, improving spectral efficiency is a good option, this can be achieved with better coordination in features to help avoid interference and with massive MIMO [multiple-input, multiple-output]. It turns out that network throughput in bits per second in an area is a function of cell density, so a number of cells in an area, the available spectrum in hertz and the spectral efficiency in bits per second per hertz per cell. And that’s the magic formula that has to be optimized for each of the operator situations.

MALLETTE: I understand though we have a new radio, that’s a 5G NR [new radio] capable radio and we might be able to handle a lot of those issues you just talked about. Can you tell us about it and how these new Ericsson 5G radio access technologies are going to help operators prepare for 5G?

CHALLONER: Yes, absolutely. Ericsson is launching our new AIR 32/46 product. It’s a massive MIMO product that is 32 transmit and 32 receive ports. It supports the 5G NR, that’s the new radio waveform defined in 3GPP and so is truly a 5G radio. But it can also support LTE; it can be deployed in a 4G network and then be migrated to 5G protecting our operator investments. The MIMO antenna array allows the radio to triple capacity compared to conventional 2T2R - that’s 2 transmit 2 receive radio -  and provide up to five times the gain at the edge of the cell. This is compelling. It will be available in mid band frequency ranges that our customer uses and it will support four 10 gigabit per second optical CPRI [Common Public Radio Interface] links that are needed to deal with high capacity. It’s easy to deploy using existing sites and as an integrated antenna.  AIR32/46 will be a very capable product and will make a difference for operators in their capacity wars.

MALLETTE: That sounds that it’s really going to simplify things and actually do a lot more than the radios have done in the past. You mentioned before, among the developments that are making 5G possible, are these massive MIMO and multi-user MIMO paired with beamforming. Again, it sounds complex but maybe you can describe those technologies and explain what advantages they have maybe in helping us increase the data speeds and the system capacity.

CHALLONER: So, the massive MIMO, that’s ‘multiple input and multiple output’ is an effective way to improve spectral efficiency – uses multiple antenna rays and special diversity to create multiple transmission channels. Anything over 16 transmit paths is called Massive, so massive MIMO. The more channels or layers within the available spectrum, the more the network capacity. And that gives faster data throughput to each individual user. Massive MIMO with beamforming uses highly focused beams to deliver a stronger radio signal with a high data rate to a greater distance. So, we use advanced antenna arrays with a large number of these steerable ports. The radio signals are sent directly to each device instead of a broadcast across the cell, and it also reduces the amount of interference in the overall cell. The number and shape of the beams is controlled dynamically. This lets us transmit high data rates at the cell edge. Ok, that’s MIMO and beamforming, but we also have multi-user MIMO.

Multi-user MIMO is when data is transmitted to multiple user devices using the same time and frequency resources but from the same antenna. The beams don’t overlap. It’s the separation of these beams that allows us to reuse resources and adds capacity. Our beams, which follow a single user, are created and they are controlled both in the horizontal and vertical directions. This sharing and isolation of resources creates the multi user MIMO capacity gate. But remember the newer devices will generally be needed to support this feature. Massive MIMO with beam forming together with multi-user MIMO are the main 5G capacity multipliers that we should look at.

MALLETTE: Wow! That sounds very sophisticated but also sounds extremely efficient and very flexible. So, lots of good things are coming from this. What makes the AIR 32/46 different from what I understand, is that it supports Frequency Division Duplex or FDD versus Time Division Duplex or TDD. Can you explain the difference of those and how maybe FDD helps enhance the network throughput?

CHALLONER: Ericsson has previously released MIMO products for TDD, so that’s ‘time division duplex’, and that’s a technology that transmits and receives in the same frequency band just a different instance of time. We’ve already launched AIR 64/68 and AIR 64/88 which have 64 transceiver branches, and even AIR51/21 with 512 transceiver branches ‒ and that’s a lot of transceivers. So, the first number in the model really indicates the number of transceivers that you have in the product. In the TDD methodology, the radio channel characteristics between transmit and receive are the same so no UE [user equipment] or device feedback is required. It relies on something called channel reciprocity; that means the RF channel is the same on the transmit and receive, and makes it simpler to implement, and is supported on the existing devices in the field and the full gain is immediate.

But operators today also have FDD, frequency division duplex spectrum, and so want to use the MIMO technology in the bands that they have. So, we need an FDD MIMO solution. Transmit and receive are in two different frequencies, so feedback loop to devices is needed to know what’s going on with the radio channel so the beams on the downlink can be properly steered. Existing devices supporting releases ‘8’ and ‘9’ -  that’s the 3GPP standards that were defined ‒ they will achieve a 50% capacity gain over and above the two TTR arrangements. 50% gain with existing terminals, that’s pretty good. Then comes release ‘10’ in 2017, those devices can give up to 70% capacity gain. Then the sequence goes: release ‘13’ in 2018 can double that capacity; release ‘14’ in 2019 can triple that capacity. There are huge gains for an operator and why these products are so important in the industry. But that’s not all. At the cell edge, there is an even bigger gain, because the higher energy beam reaches further, improving the performance at the edge of the cell. The existing devices releases ‘8’, ‘9’ and ‘10’, we can expect the user throughput to double at the cell edge. With future devices ‘13’ and ‘14’, we can expect the user throughput to increase up to five times at the cell edge, which significantly boosts the user experience. This is transformative in a 4G network and underpins 5G future experiences.

MALLETTE: It definitely sounds like those devices are going to be very capable to handle the massive amounts of data that are coming our way with 5G. What would an operator’s next step be in order to implement NR radio in general, but maybe even the AIR32/46 specifically?

CHALLONER: Well the first thing to say is the AIR32/46 can be used in today’s LTE networks to add capacity. So, it can be deployed today and can be deployed as part of new network roll outs. In the future when operators introduce NR or new radio, the operator can upgrade their packet core, their evolved packet core (EPC) to a non-standalone configuration and the good news is: the Ericsson baseband 52/16 and the AIR 32/46 can both be software upgraded to support NR. This means investment in all of these products are future proof. We need solutions not just in mid-bands like AIR 32/46 but also in the millimeter wave bands like 28 and 39 Gigahertz. Existing and future spectrum will gradually be converted to the NR standards and Ericsson will have a portfolio to address all these needs together with device availability. As we define new use cases in 5G with ever increasing demands of the network, it’s clear that MIMO technologies and especially the AIR 32/46 will be a key tool for the journey to 5G. And as we say ‘5G is coming ready or not’, AIR32/46 will help you ‘choose ready’.

MALLETTE: That sounds like a great idea so we should definitely ‘choose ready’. Thank you, Paul. I definitely learned a lot today about radios and their role in the evolution to 5G.

To summarize what I’ve heard here today, network capacity is the proverbial silver bullet. With growing demand for higher resolution video, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, IoT and new use cases, operators need more capacity. To do this they have three options: they can densify the networks by adding cells, they can add spectrum, or they can increase efficiency in the way they use that spectrum. However, operators also want to lower their costs per bit and the first two options – densification and adding spectrum – are expensive and time consuming. So, today’s conversation focused on the third option and discussed how multi-user MIMO and beamforming are key technologies for boosting spectral efficiency. The Ericsson AIR 32/46 radio, which supports multi-user MIMO and FDD, will provide a 50% capacity boost for LTE networks with existing devices. And with future software upgrades, it will support 5G NR because it’s truly a 5G radio. At that time, we expect it to increase network capacity up to three times and increase user throughput up to five times. That makes 32/46 a great choice to boost capacity for both today and for the future.

Thanks for spending 15 minutes with 5G. If you’d like more information, please visit and if you like what you’ve heard please subscribe to the podcast. As we know ‘5G is coming, ready or not’. Let’s ‘choose ready’!