What’s next for 5G in unlicensed spectrum?

HANNOVER, Germany–LTE in unlicensed frequency bands came late in the development of that particular flavor of cellular, and standards body 3GPP was primarily focused on aggregating the 5 GHz band with licensed carriers, called License Assisted Access. Enter the MulteFire Alliance, a cross-industry consortium formed to focus on a standalone mode of LTE in unlicensed spectrum.

The group developed a 1.0 and 1.1 specification, the latter focused on supporting industrial-type internet of things deployment scenarios like at a port or an airport, for instance. But things are different with the 5G New Radio standard.

3GPP is currently studying NR-U for the 5 GHz and 6 GHz bands for potential inclusion in Release 16. The study item contemplates both an aggregation scenario like LAA and a standalone mode of operation.

Stephan Litjens, MulteFire Alliance Board Chair, and GM, Digital Automation, Nokia, speaking during the Hannover Messe industrial fair this week, looked back at the group’s original intent and looked ahead at what’s next given 3GPP interest in NR-U.

“We saw the opportunity [around LTE]but 3GPP didn’t get up,” he said. “So we said, ‘OK, we will set up an alliance to accelerate the development of unlicensed technologies. The good news is now this is better recognized.”

He said the MulteFire Alliance will continue its work, predicting that 3GPP would focus on a general purpose definition while there would still be a need for use case-specific profiling, similar to what the group did with its 1.1 specification. “We think in the this industrial environment we need some more detail than the specification,” Litjens said.

Fielding questions from the audience, Litjens and a colleague from MulteFire Alliance said the group was having internal discussions around whether to look at the unlicensed 60 GHz band which supports WiGig based on the IEEE 802.11ad standard, but noted they want to stay aligned with 3GPP.

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