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Industry Insight

Finding the missing link

Massive MIMO seems to create a win-win opportunity for operators and consumers.

Does more always mean better?

This is something mobile operators should probably consider seriously with the advent of the 5G era. Consumers have been experiencing the benefits of 4G speeds on the mobile operator networks, and I'm sure everyone will agree it has vastly improved the Internet access experience on mobile devices.

The Internet penetration in this country is also very low in the outlying areas, and there is a real need for faster and more cost-effective roll-out of broadband to more than just the middle-class living in the cities. 5G technology is still in its infancy and is only expected from 2021 onwards.

Until 5G arrives, what can be done?

Wireless equipment vendors are coming to market with pre-5G, otherwise known as massive multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO).

But, what is massive MIMO?

Sweet 16

MIMO is wireless technology that essentially uses two or more transmitters and receivers to send and receive more data at the same time, and massive MIMO is defined as 16 or even more transmitters and receivers, and is also fully compatible with existing user devices.

Essentially, this means more data can be sent and received on the same frequencies, thereby increasing the capacity of the mobile operator on the base station.

In further simplistic terms, one could compare it to one's home WiFi router, which has a certain limitation on how many devices can connect to the router at any given point in time. The devices connected to the router simultaneously all have to share the capacity on the router, thereby reducing the speed for each device.

However, with massive MIMO, on the same frequency spectrum, the connected devices would not have to share the capacity, but would instead have their own unique connection without interference from the other devices. For massive MIMO to work, it is necessary to deploy pre-5G base stations with massive MIMO features integrated with the radio units, thereby allowing for higher capacity. This, in turn, will enhance the efficiency and reduce cost of deployment.

Holy Grail?

Mobile operators in SA say they are experiencing massive challenges with the current available spectrum. ITWeb reports spectrum is regulated in SA, and getting a licence is close to impossible and costly. Therefore, it follows that more efficient use of the available spectrum would improve throughput capacities on the current wireless networks. The same MIMO technology principles would also apply to wireless hotspots, thus allowing for increased capacity and throughput on WiFi access points.

Until 5G arrives, what can be done?

Massive MIMO increases the number of users able to connect to any given base station and also the speed of access to the Internet for those users. It has been reported that massive MIMO could potentially improve efficiencies 10-fold and even 22-fold. Massive MIMO also improves robustness to frequency interference and even intentional jamming of signals from the antennas.

In May 2017, China Mobile used massive MIMO to support live mobile video streaming and other high-speed wireless data services for the Jilin City International Marathon 2017. This event attracted about 10 000 participants, and an estimated 50 000 users watched the event online with video streaming in a very congested urban network area. Without massive MIMO, the networks would have been too congested to accommodate this number of users.

In Japan, SoftBank has already rolled out massive MIMO to 100 of its base stations in 43 cities, thereby reducing capacity constraints on its urban networks. This surely proves the efficiency improvements of massive MIMO.

Moreover, massive MIMO seems to create a win-win opportunity for both the operators and the consumers. The operators are able to maximise the use of their frequency spectrums, increase the speeds (capacity throughput) on their existing networks and spectrum, and contain their capital expenditure, and the consumer – too – gets a much better service.

This can all be achieved without necessarily having to build more towers, because the massive MIMO antennas merely need to be installed on the existing towers to garner these benefits. This in itself is a huge capital saving and means a faster time to market for operators.

The high cost of deploying optical fibre in SA is another reason for local operators to consider massive MIMO technology, because similar capacity and speeds can be achieved with it at a fraction of the cost of rolling out fibre to the home.

By utilising massive MIMO technologies, mobile operators can, therefore, improve their spectrum efficiencies, and capacity throughputs in the congested areas to allow for faster broadband roll-out to outlying areas where optical fibre deployment is not economically viable. Thus, it logically follows that ‘more would be better' for both the operators and the users.

Has the missing link in massive MIMO been found? The unsuspecting South African public may end up being the judge of that!


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