Optus aggregates 3.5 GHz with mmWave, plans commercial launch this year

Optus has shared details of a lab trial that saw it aggregate 3.5 GHz frequencies with spectrum in the 26 GHz mmWave band to enable it to provide high-speed 5G connectivity over a wider area.

The Australian telco showcased the use of New Radio Dual Connectivity (NR-DC) technology to aggregate its mid-band 3.5 GHz spectrum assets with its recently-acquired 26 GHz spectrum at a demonstration in Sydney, alongside vendor partners Ericsson and MediaTek. But this is not just about Optus taking the opportunity to talk up its technology prowess; it has a semi-firm plan for commercial deployment too.

“Optus expects to roll out this new capability across its 5G network later this year as commercial mmWave devices begin to hit the market,” it said.

For its 5G customers, that means greater speed and capacity. NR-DC enables Optus to extend its mmWave coverage over a greater distance, the telco explained. The use of both spectrum bands simultaneously will provide a significant increase in both average and peak 5G speeds, it said. However, it did not share any hard data on that last point, or provide any statistics from the trial.

The demo used MediaTek’s M80 test platform, which combines mmWave and sub-6 GHz 5G technologies onto a single chip, and Ericsson’s RAN equipment, including basebands and 5G radios. That’s the same kit employed by Verizon when it trialled the aggregation of C-band spectrum with mmWave earlier this year. Optus is likely to beat the US telco to market though, since Verizon will not have access to the first swathe of the C-band frequencies it acquired – at enormous cost – a few months ago until the back end of the year.

While Optus is waxing lyrical about the benefits of the technology from a coverage and capacity point of view, it is as much about enabling new use cases as it is simply providing a faster service for consumers.

Ericsson’s Head of Global Customer Unit Singtel, Optus’ parent company, highlighted gaming and immersive media as two such use cases, as we have heard many times before.

Indeed, when Optus secured its mmWave spectrum in April – it paid A$226.2 million (US$166.5 million) for 800MHz of 26 GHz spectrum in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra and a range of regional areas, and 600 MHz in Hobart and Margaret River in Western Australia – it described the frequencies as being critical for delivering services based on augmented and virtual reality, and cloud gaming services, as well as enabling huge amounts of simultaneous usage at transport hubs and major events.

Cloud gaming is an area in which the benefit of 5G is easy to understand; simply put, dedicated gamers will pay more for low latency. But we cannot yet say the same for other often-mentioned use cases, like AR/VR, particularly on the consumer side. Similarly, customers will want reliable connections in high-traffic areas, but it’s unlikely that telcos will be able to reap a return on investment on that score.

Nonetheless, technological advancements like spectrum aggregation will stand telcos in good stead to build monetisable services on top of their 5G networks, even if they cannot yet fully articulate what those services will look like.

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