What Is a Millimeter Wave?
- 04 May, 2022
Technology has changed and developed extensively over the past few years. Cell phones in particular, have advanced so much that they have the ability to perform many functions that were once only possible on a desktop or laptop. Regardless of the device, many functions require a fast network connection to run.
Cell phones are not the only devices that use these networks. More devices are using the same networks that our smartphones and tablets use. Some of these devices include smart watches, smart appliances and internet connect transport.
To accommodate this rapid growth in data usage, network providers are going to have to expand their cellular networks for an overabundance of new devices. This Blog takes a closer look at the millimeter wave spectrum and how network providers are working to expand 5G infrastructure.
More about the Millimeter Wave Spectrum
Millimeter waves — also called mmWaves or high-band 5G — are frequencies starting at 24 GHz and up. Each wave narrows in length, as radio waves increase in frequency. Due to its high frequency, Millimeter wave has a limited range of only 90 to 150 meters and struggles to pass through buildings. Unlike 3G and 4G networks that are able to travel great distances and better penetrate building materials.
Until recently, millimeter waves were only used by radar systems and satellite, usually operated by the aerospace industry and military. But as data consumption has rapidly increased, the industry identified the need to use millimeter waves for next-generation cellular networks.
All cellular network activity transmits over radio wave frequencies. As devices are added to the mix and more people use them more frequently, these frequencies are over loaded.
You can think of these frequencies as roads and the data that’s transmitted across them as vehicles. When there are many roads, the data moves rapidly. But when more vehicles join the same limited roads, we get congestions and everything slows down.
It’s not just cellular networks that use these frequencies — everything from microwaves to WiFi routers to drones occupy some “road” on the radio wave spectrum. Right now, most of these devices exist in the 3 GHz to 6 GHz range, but these frequencies are filling up fast. As more devices come online, all that data is going to need more room to run.
That’s where the millimeter wave spectrum comes into play.
Millimeter waves allow for the possibility of 5G networks that provide enhanced reliability and increased speed. Data traveling over cellular networks at incredible speed with unapparent latency could be the norm, making way for innovations in cellular data applications.
5G networks using mmWave could open up to a variety of applications which consume extensive amounts of data.
mmWave could also unfold possibilities of virtual and augmented reality technology, which could be the future of how we interact with the web.
While network providers foresee a bright future for 5G, usage of millimeter waves for cellular networks was considered unsuitable because of their constraints.
For starters, millimeter waves have high atmospheric attenuation. This means that the waves are effortlessly soaked up by gasses in the atmosphere, including rain. This severely constrains their reach, even over short spaces. To make matters worse, they only move in line-of-sight paths, meaning, trees, hills and even buildings can obstruct them.
While this can be challenging in using millimeter waves for cellular connectivity, new antenna technologies and novel approaches have appeared to help follow through on the promise of mmWave 5G.
Small Cell Networks
A macrocell is a typical cell phone tower used for 4G networks. They are made to produce high-powered signals over long distances. They simply aren’t equipped for 5G mmWave signals.
Instead, network providers utilize what’s known as small cells for 5G coverage. These smaller, low-power cells provide a focused signal on mmWave frequencies. But because of the disadvantages of mmWave technology, they’re deployed in small cell networks — sometimes in clusters of hundreds or more — to provide adequate 5G signals to an area.
The downside is network providers must install large numbers— sometimes thousands — of these small cells for greater coverage in an area. Even then, there are still complications with building penetration. But as technology advances, we’ll see more small cell networks being used, at least in larger metropolitan areas.
Millimeter Waves in Cellular Networks
Because of the constraints, mmWave in mobile networks will only cover either outdoor or indoor environments. In other words, an antenna broadcasting millimeter waves placed outdoors won’t penetrate homes and buildings to provide 5G connectivity to the users inside. Likewise, for people connected to an indoor antenna, mmWave connectivity is lost if they walk outside.
Because of this, 5G deployments utilizing mmWave will need to coexist with other 5G deployments below the threshold of mmWave frequencies. Moreover, they’ll need to integrate with other mobile network technologies, such as 4G LTE, so that connection is seamless.
Due to its constraints in range capabilities, it’s likely that 5G technologies on mmWave won’t replace 4G LTE for a while. That said, there are other ways for distibuting mmWave 5G to larger metropolitan areas.
Bridging the Gap With Signal Boosters
Signal amplifiers are progressively considered to be an essential part of mmWave and 5G mobile network implementation. Amplifiers have been an asset for locations with inadequate cellular signals for a while. Signal repeaters work by pulling in outside cellular signal inside a building or vehicle, amplifying it, and broadcasting the boosted signal to cellular-connected devices.
Given mmWave’s challenges with attenuation and being rendered useless by even the simplest obstructions, it’s easy to imagine a future where 5G networks are dependent on Signal Boosters.
Building entire cell sites or small cell networks is necessary in some instances. But there will be countless other situations where signal amplifiers can help bridge the gap between the incredible speed that mmWave offers and its limitations.
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