SmarTone and Ericsson have commenced a trial of FDD massive MIMO technology as the cellco continues its march towards 5G.
The two companies are trialing FDD massive MIMO on the 1800 MHz band to put the technology through its paces and test its capabilities in Hong Kong’s dense urban environment. SmarTone intends to deploy Ericsson’s recently launched AIR 3246 radio in its network sometime next year, starting in heavy traffic areas such as Central and Causeway Bay.
The AIR 3246 will not only give SmarTone’s existing LTE network massive MIMO capabilities, but also make it upgradeable to 5G NR with a software upgrade.
Nishant Batra, head of Product Area Network Infrastructure at Ericsson, said massive MIMO will enable better cell capacity for SmarTone’s LTE network, particularly at the cell edge – and users won’t have to buy new handsets to notice the difference.
“Even with existing handsets that support Release 8 and 9, massive MIMO can deliver a capacity gain [on the cell edge] of almost two times,” Batra said.
That’s based on a massive MIMO deployment with 32 Tx antennas vs just two antennas with standard LTE. Batra said that Release 14 devices (scheduled for 2019) could see 5x capacity gains.
SmarTone CTO Stephen Chau said the cellco decided to use the 1800-MHz band for the trial “because that’s the basic backbone for our 4G network, so we decided to start there.”
The FDD massive MIMO trial is the latest stage in SmarTone’s five-year plan with Ericsson to evolve to 5G. So far this year, SmarTone and Ericsson have staged a demo for 5G NR and conducted a trial using LAA (license assisted access, which enables LTE over unlicensed spectrum).
Next year, Chau said, SmarTone will activate massive MIMO on the live network and also plans to deploy a cloud-based core network. The cellco also plans to equip its base stations with fiber fronthaul and backhaul in 2019. And sometime after that … full-on 5G.
Just when SmarTone launches 5G will depend on a number of factors, to include availability of new spectrum. Hong Kong’s Communications Authority has announced plans to earmark specific bands for 5G usage, but won’t release any of it until at least 2019.
As LTE will serve as one of the central components of 5G, SmarTone’s plan is to make its LTE network as 5G-ready as possible so that when the time comes to go 5G, most of the groundwork will have already been completed.
That’s one reason it’s necessary for SmarTone – and indeed other cellcos – to start early on massive MIMO rather than wait to see which way the 5G winds will blow, said Batra of Ericsson.
“It’s necessary to deploy massive MIMO today in order to be ready for 5G,” he said. “You don’t have to wait for 5G to get the benefits of greater cell capacity.”