Network evolution in the era of 5.5G – Total Telecom

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Earlier this year, we spoke with Cullen Xu, Vice President of Huawei’s 5G & LTE TDD Product Line, about key developments in 5.5G network technology and the new experiences this will unlock for customer

In 2024, roughly five years into the commercial deployment of 5G, the latest generation of wireless technology continues to find success in unexpected places. 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) has becoming hugely popular around the world for delivering broadband services to areas underserved by fibre. Meanwhile, in the enterprise space, dedicated 5G private networks have proven high effective at modernising various vertical industries, particularly in industrial settings like ports, mines, and manufacturing plants.

For consumers too the first phase of 5G has proven technically successful, delivering far greater speeds, lower latencies, and larger capacity compared to 4G. But to truly unlock the latest mobile experiences, like extended reality and cloud gaming, 5G networks will need to take the next step on the evolutionary path, becoming more multi-dimensional and deterministic, ensuring even faster and more resilient connectivity.

Now, following the recent publication of 3GPP’s Release 18, this next stage of development – 5.5G, (also known as 5G Advanced) – is becoming more clearly defined, with initial commercial deployments expected to take place in leading markets like China and the Middle East later this year.

With speeds up to ten times faster than existing 5G, 5.5G is set to enable a plethora of new consumer use cases, as well as further enhancing the technology’s utility for FWA, enterprise, and industrial applications.

But what exactly can we expect from the 5.5G era in terms of network technology?

For Cullen Xu, Vice President of Huawei’s 5G & LTE TDD Product Line, the transition to 5.5G within the network will focus on five key areas.

5.5G: The networks must evolve

1. Upgrading to ultra-large bandwidth

As more and more people begin to take advantage of 5G services, data demand on the network is expected to increase rapidly. This is especially true for high footfall areas, like subways, stadiums, or tourist locations, where congestion can become a major issue. With 5.5G, networks must be upgraded to support far greater bandwidth, more carriers, and more customers accessing the network simultaneously, to ensure high quality experience for all customers wherever they are.

2. Multicarrier capability for Massive MIMO

Just as fixed networks will need to evolve, so too will 5G RAN equipment, with Massive MIMO technology required to further embrace multicarrier features. This, as Xu explains, will not only help boost performance, but will play a major role in reducing sites’ energy consumption.

“Huawei’s dual-band Meta AAU product, already used both in China and in other markets, has the same specifications as a single band AAU, but the performance is doubled and has power savings of up to 30%”, explained Xu.

3. Extremely Large Antenna Array (ELAA)

Further to incorporating multicarrier functionality, 5.5G will also feature ELAA technology, where hundreds or thousands of antennae can leverage beamforming to enhance signal strength and coverage. This technology, native to 5.5G, is already being embedded in the latest RAN equipment.

“In future, this will support mmWave and sub-6Ghz spectrum,” explained Xu. “With ELAA we can multiply or add more elements to our AAU products; for example, supporting up to 2000+ antenna elements for mmWave, which will ensure continuous network coverage.”

4. Building an intelligent RAN

The process of making RAN equipment more intelligent has already been taking place for many years; for example, Huawei MetaAAU using intelligent beam tracking (Intelligent Beam) to help boost performance by between 20–30%. Now, as we enter the 5.5G era, this build in intelligence will be take even further, with what Huawei calls ‘harmonised MIMO’, allowing for even more intelligent automation of the RAN.

5. Greener networks

Finally, alongside all of these technological developments, the industry must be careful not to lose sight of another key concern: sustainability. Power consumption remains a major challenge for operators,

Here, Huawei has adopted a ‘0 Bit 0 Watt’ approach, focussing on using minimal power when radio sites are not in use. Through dynamic control, these sites consume less than 10 watts of power during idle hours while still being able to become fully operation in seconds.

Beyond the network: New experiences and new markets with 5.5G

With these network upgrades in place, operators’ path to monetising new services becomes much clearer. They can begin offering subscribers truly unique services, like ultrahigh definition video, 5G new calling services, and 3D video. FWA, too, will be further improved, reaching speeds of 300–500Mbps and enabling services like cloud gaming.

But it is not just consumer use cases that will see the benefits of 5.5G. With the introduction of 5G RedCap, IoT devices can be increasingly integrated with public wireless networks, offering up a wealth of additional data for both operators and their customers.

“This is the first time we will notice that the connection of things is far more than the connections of people,” said Xu. “With the evolution of 5.5G modules starting this year […], we’re going to see more mature and well-established technologies to support passive IoT. In the 5.5G era, we predict an exponential growth in the number of connected things.”

Perhaps one of the most exciting intersections of 5.5G with novel technology is in the automotive industry. Connected vehicles are already becoming increasingly available worldwide, with the ultralow latency and high reliability of 5G integral to ensuring safety and high-quality user experience.

Xu notes that this trend will only increase in the years to come, as connected vehicles become more integrated with the wireless infrastructure around them.

“There is a growing market segment for connected vehicles and road synergy that can make our transportation more efficient. With 5.5G, this coordination segment can be further facilitated to ensure that road and vehicles are safer, and services are more reliable,” he said.

Similar trends can be expected in other vertical industries, with 5.5G’s ultra large uplink and high precision positioning capabilities further improvement to Industry 4.0 applications, like asset tracking and autonomous vehicles. For Xu, the improvement will be so significant that industry’s not leveraging these improved wireless capabilities risk being left behind by competitors.

“With all these features and capabilities, 5.5G can better enable wireless networking in many different industries. Gradually wireless networks will be seen not just as an assisting technology but will widely be adopted for core production domains,” he explained.

A new horizon for wireless technology

It is worth remembering here the current environment in which this wireless evolution is taking place. The number of connected devices is booming, user applications are becoming more data-hungry, and, perhaps most notably. AI is also taking the world by storm. With AI-generated content becoming more commonplace, particularly video content from the likes of Open AI’s Sora, networks will need to be increasingly robust.

“In the AI era we see a lot of emerging services, like Sora and other AI-generated content,” said Xu. “When customers are uploading those videos, we will see a lot of high bitrate traffic. In order to guarantee a very good user experience given such a traffic surge, we’re going to need 5.5G.”

“For me personally, I’m very excited about this new user experience,” he added. “There are a lot of challenges imposed on the network by new technologies like AIGC and Sora, so we need quality assurance. But this is offering customers experiences never seen before and that is a very exciting opportunity for operators.”

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