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2016

Earlier this month, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) decided to allocate nearly 11 GHz of spectrum for 5G mobile broadband use. If you need some good bedtime reading, try the 278-page document;

for a concise summary, see “FCC OKs sweeping Spectrum Frontiers rules to open up nearly 11 GHz of spectrum.”

 

The FCC made this bold move to get out in front of the coming 5G technology wave- and its decision will help the rest of us focus our energies on the crucial innovations that will enable 5G.

 

The commissioners wisely chose to include 3.85 GHz of licensed spectrum and 7 GHz of unlicensed spectrum, supporting both types of business innovation. The newly allocated spectrum sits at 28 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 64-71 GHz, and the FCC will seek additional comment on the bands above 95 GHz. The new unlicensed band (64 to 71 GHz) is adjacent to the existing 57 to 64 GHz ISM band, creating a 14 GHz band of contiguous unlicensed spectrum (57 to 71 GHz).

 

I am struck by the huge amount of high-frequency spectrum that has been allocated for future wideband mobile use. For an interesting comparison, look back at the spectrum that launched the first analog cellular systems in the US: the Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS) used 824-849 MHz and 869-894 MHz for a total spectrum 50 MHz wide. The FCC’s 5G spectrum decision allocates more than 200 times that amount, underlining the kind of bandwidth required to meet the aggressive goals of 5G.

 

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was very clear about the how the FCC is approaching the 5G opportunity. In a recent speech, he said, “With today’s Order, we are repeating the proven formula that made the United States the world leader in 4G: one, make spectrum available quickly and in sufficient amounts; two, encourage and protect innovation-driving competition; and three, stay out of the way of market-driven, private sector technological development.”

 

To open up wide chunks of spectrum, the FCC had to reach for higher frequencies, which bring with them plenty of technical challenges. Millimeter-wave (mmWave) frequencies have higher path loss and undergo different effects from scattering, diffraction and material penetration. Also, mmWave components and subsystems are harder to design due to significant tradeoffs between energy efficiency and maximum power level. Compounding the difficulty, frequency bands below 6 GHz will also be critical for 5G deployment, working in concert with the mmWave bands. From this perspective, I see three areas that will require significant innovation on the path to 5G:

 

New channel models: Today, millimeter frequencies are often used for fixed terrestrial communication links and satellite communications. These tend to be stationary point-to-point links that don’t have to deal with radio mobility. At Keysight, we have been working with communications researchers at higher frequencies to develop channel models that are appropriate for mobile broadband use at mmWave. The higher-frequency, wideband nature of the channel and the dynamics of the mobile environment require more robust modeling approaches than those used for lower frequencies.

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Beamforming needs to work: The remedy for higher signal loss is to increase the antenna gain and make it steerable, a technique commonly known as beamforming. This method focuses radio signals from an array of multiple antenna elements into narrow beams that can be pointed for maximum overall system performance. Wireless LAN at 60 GHz (802.11ad) offers 7 Gbps connectivity for short-distance or “in room” applications—and 802.11ad does implement beamforming to optimize signal strength. While some of this work will leverage into 5G, 802.11ad is neither mobile nor multiple access (handling multiple diverse users simultaneously). There’s more work to be done here.

 

New air interface: Not to be overlooked is the need for a new air interface to take advantage of wide spectrum (when available). This interface must be scalable by design so that it can deliver unprecedented high bandwidth while still performing well for lower-bandwidth applications. The aggressive goals for 5G also include improved spectral efficiency, low battery drain for mobile devices and low latency for IoT devices.

 

We’ve been here before: you may recall the difficult list of challenges associated with LTE (4G) technology. Just like 5G, LTE was an aggressive technology development pursued by the wireless industry. Somehow we got it done. Challenges like this drive innovation in electronic communications.

Upgrading consumer technology is often advertised as being “easy,” and sometimes it is. But it’s the things they don’t tell you that can drive you crazy. That new cell phone looks sleek and perfect—until you realize you now have a drawer full of charging cords you can’t use. That high-resolution, eight-inch display in the new car is beautiful—except now you have to pull over to the side of the road to change the radio station.

 

Refreshing test technology can be like that, too. There are advantages and pitfalls, but a basic truth is this: No matter how much better your test floor will run after a technology deployment, getting there requires some disruption. The key is to minimize it. In test environments, that means addressing at least the following four things before you sign the P.O.

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Measurement capability

In my experience, customers who purchase new test equipment usually fall into one of three categories. Some buy too much functionality and end up overpaying for their particular needs. Others buy too little functionality and then need to allocate more funds to either upgrade their system or trade it in on a more powerful instrument. The third group—those who buy exactly the right amount of functionality and measurement accuracy for their unique needs—are in the sweet spot. To make sure you fall into that third category, take a fresh look at your products and development plan. Understand exactly what you need to be able to test today, and try to anticipate your test needs 18 to 24 months down the road. Chances are, your new test system will be faster, smaller, and maybe even simpler to operate, but if it can’t measure what you need it to measure today and a year from now, with the accuracy you need, nothing else matters.

 

Code compatibility

I’ve been told that the cost of creating new code for test sets can be up to three times the cost of the instrument. That’s a sobering thought. What’s more, the speed with which code is deployed affects how quickly you can get equipment up and running. Although many instrument suppliers claim to have code-compatible equipment, be careful and read the fine print. Many companies simply transfer existing commands to the new equipment, so your old programs run the same way on new equipment that they did on your old systems. Even though you purchased state-of-the-art equipment, performance stays the same. It’s like buying a new hybrid car and disabling the EV battery, so you’re getting the same gas mileage that you got with your old car. An even worse outcome is if performance degrades. With old programs running on the new equipment, measurements might not perform the same way, giving you inaccurate or misleading results.

 

Physical envelope

Does a new instrument need to fit into an existing rack? Is floor space limited or being reallocated? This is a case where a little planning goes a long way. Just as you measure the doorways at home before buying a new couch or a high-tech workout machine, make sure your new equipment fits the physical space you’ve allocated.

 

User interface

Does your new equipment have the right connections on the front and back panels? If not, there’s usually a workaround, so it’s not a showstopper. But like the new cell phone that has a completely different charger interface, it’s a good idea to avoid surprises—and deployment delays—whenever you can.

 

The good news is, there will always be newer technology. That’s the challenge, too. But with a little planning, your next technology refresh can be smooth and even transformative for your test floor. I won’t describe it as “easy,” but done right, it can be surprise-free.

 

What about you? What’s the most interesting surprise you’ve had when updating equipment in your test environment? I’m always interested to know what my fellow technologists are up to.

 

Duane Lowenstein is a Test Strategy Analysis Manager for Keysight Technologies. Read his bio.

Late seventeenth century Europe saw the publication of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, perhaps the penultimate document of the Enlightenment. While this and Newton’s other key works place him on the highest dais in the Pantheon of the scientific revolution, he was also devoted to experimentation with the transformation of base metals into gold. With our twenty-first century perspective, it is difficult to reconcile Newton’s unparalleled understanding of nature with the relative absurdity of this faux science. During his lifetime, however, it was inappropriate to call this dichotomy into question.

 

As risky as it once was to challenge Newton’s work with alchemy, I have found it equally perilous to take a stance on separating myth (or hype) from reality in 5G technology. Because I am a self-taught industry analyst from the test and measurement business, you may question what I can surmise about what the giants of communications can and will do. But since we no longer burn witches, I will explore at least one facet of this topic in suggesting which parts of the 5G vision we can expect to be commercialized in 2020.

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Now completed, the METIS 2020 Project envisioned 5G as “Amazingly Fast, Great Service in a Crowd, Best Service Follows You, Super Real-Time and Reliable Communications, and Ubiquitous Things Communicating.” In pursuit of this vision, their work-products show insightful thought on how we can measure progress in these areas. But on January 1, 2020, nobody will throw a “5G switch” causing this vision to explode into reality. As with every other generational change, 5G communications will grow slowly from subset functionality deployed in a few second-tier city-centers; and its growth will be fraught with the same kinds of challenges we saw with every previous generation—plus a few new ones.

 

There. I made my first prediction. The sentences above suggest some more significant underpinnings of what we can expect from those developing and implementing 5G.

 

My logic follows from the challenges that hindered previous generations. Does anyone remember voice-codec battles in 2G? (Male vs. female voices? Codec data-rates? Language and phoneme problems?) What about the devastating financial impact of the 3G spectrum auctions, especially in Europe? How about WiMAX vs. LTE? Or 3GPP vs. 3GPP2?

 

We can also see the continuing 3G-to-4G rollout challenges in front of us even now: the drastically different levels of maturity in the various carriers’ networks around the world; Europe’s latest legal implementation of flat roaming rates for mobile wireless; the list goes on. And if any of my dear readers believe that problems with managing voice are now behind us, have a conversation with anyone involved in the deployment (and, frustratingly, the use) of VoLTE.

 

All of the challenges in wireless—past, present and future—fit into a common framework: the intertwined evolution of technology, policy and business model. Thus far, the success of the industry is testimony to its ability to overcome the challenges posed by that daunting triumvirate.

 

Untangling the inherent dynamics can lead to a clearer understanding of how and when the challenges can be overcome. That clarity provides a foundation for industry participants and observers alike to sketch promising business plans—and this is part of my role inside of Keysight, looking for opportunities to create 5G test solutions that will help the industry drive forward to its future vision.

 

These themes continue in my next two posts as I dig deeper on four specific topics floating inside my crystal ball. Two of these are enabling technologies: millimeter-wave for enhanced mobile broadband and massive MIMO. The other two are potential applications of 5G mobile: wireless IoT and tactile wireless Internet. As a teaser, I state here that just one of these will be commercial by 2020. What’s your take?

Early in my career, I was leading a small R&D team and found ourselves in a challenge to meet a key customer’s needs and timelines.  A proposal was made for a “minimum-viable” product that could be delivered within two years. I asked my team: Should we spend the next two years of our lives, not to mention our intellect and energy, developing something that has already been done or is barely acceptable? Their answer was “No,” and what followed was a proposal for a highly differentiated product—the world’s first protocol exerciser for that technology, the descendants of which are still in use decades later in validation labs worldwide.

 

That formative experience turned my belief in innovation into an obsession. It may be an overused term, but innovation—call it disruption if you prefer—is the most important aspect of a technology company, yet it’s often sacrificed for expediency. It doesn’t have to be that way. Over the past three decades, I’ve learned that innovation is repeatable and sustainable if you do five things.

 

1. Refuse to be a fast follower.

The mistake we almost made on that early project was focusing on our competitor. If you set your strategy based on what your competitor is doing, then by definition, your competitor is the leader and you’re the follower. True, it’s important to keep tabs on competitors, but make sure your customers’ needs are driving strategy. What do they need to succeed? What problems are not being addressed? What new challenges are coming? You have to understand your customer’s business almost better than they do to identify challenges and opportunities. But that level of understanding puts you in a unique position. Rather than being a seller of products or services, you’re a value creator. You’ll find yourself creating products that don’t currently exist to solve problems your customers haven’t even identified. Think of it as a Declaration of Innovation: commit to doing something that hasn’t been done.

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2. Replace your products.

 

I truly believe that resting on success is one of the biggest failures of most companies and teams. Yet it’s what large companies often do. That’s why disruption tends to come from new, nimble startups. Large companies make a big investment in their products, and if things go well, they see a steady income stream from the investment. It’s hard to walk away, but that’s exactly what needs to happen. We’re lucky in the electronics test business because each generation of new technology renders the last generation of test equipment obsolete. You can’t do a good job testing 5G technology, for example, with 4G equipment. Last quarter’s big breakthrough? It’s in the past. The best innovators accept it and move on.

 

3. Focus on opportunities, not obstacles.

When learning to ride a motorcycle, instructors usually teach you  to deal with emergencies by focusing on the path  you want to take, not the obstacle  you’re trying to avoid. The same is true for driving a company forward. Fix your gaze on where you want to go—on solving your customer’s Big Problem with a Big Idea. To be sure, obstacles will be placed in your path. You’ll hear from your internal teams that there’s not enough budget, not enough time, or too few resources to deliver what’s being asked. Don’t believe it. Convince your team that the opportunity is non-negotiable, and change the assumptions instead. Get resources reassigned to the project. Reallocate funds. Buy time by outsourcing. Revisit the timeline. Do whatever it takes to bring your Big Idea to life. Because while meeting schedules and staying on budget are important, that’s not what the customer will remember. Solve their problem, make them successful, and you and your team will be the stuff of legend.

 

4. Get specific.

Often I hear from teams, “If we want to do this, we’ll need 2X our current budget.” My response is almost always:  Tell me exactly how much you need, why you need it, and how it will be used. Only with specifics can you get to the root cause of a problem, and that’s where innovation is born. I learned that lesson years ago with a Japanese customer that asked my team to reprogram a pulse generator in a way that really wasn’t feasible. Rather than telling the customer they couldn’t have what they wanted, we got more details. We visited their site, dug into their business, and discovered they were trying to solve an entirely different problem around productivity. So we developed a new product that met their exact needs, became a best seller for us, and opened a major new revenue stream. 

 

5. Let your team lead.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were technical geniuses, but I think one of their best inventions was on the management side of the business. They pioneered the concept of management by objective, or MBO, and it was the key to decades of innovation at Hewlett Packard. The concept behind MBO is that you define an objective, get agreement from the team that it’s the right objective, then let your team decide how to get there. And agreement means really agreeing, not dictating. It’s a conversation, an honest exploration of restrictions and ideas to build consensus. Once you have agreement, give your team the resources they need, then step aside and let them race forward. As long as the objective is clear, they’ll get there.

 

What are your keys to making innovation happen? How do you make it sustainable and repeatable? Leave a comment here and let’s keep the dream of innovation alive for a new generation of engineers.

 

Siegfried  Gross is vice president and general manager of Automotive and Energy Solutions for Keysight Technologies. Read his bio.