If I’ve learned one thing from my decades-long career in technology, it’s to count on continued innovations in technology that will challenge conventional beliefs and assumptions, and create new breakthroughs. Technologies evolve as people find new and innovative ways to put them to work. That’s why we fly in planes made from titanium versus fabric stretched over a wooden frame. It’s why you’re likely reading this on a smartphone seconds after it’s published instead of in a printed magazine days later. And it’s why we continue to push the spectrum envelope and leverage spectrum higher and higher up in the frequency bands – spectrum that was once viewed as unusable.

The role of spectrum on a wireless network

Radio frequency spectrum is the lifeblood of every wireless network. If you think of all the calls, application data and video transmitted over a wireless network as “traffic”, then the spectrum itself is the “highway” on which that traffic runs.

Low- to mid-range spectrum bands are freeways tens to hundreds of lanes wide that carry voice calls and data sessions at high speed. They enable us to embrace mobility and do all the things 4G LTE networks have made possible in the last decade, from streaming video on our smartphone or tablet to using social media to communicate with people around the world.

Millimeter wave spectrum, by contrast, is actually a superhighway, capable of moving massive amounts of traffic in all directions, at super-high speeds, on hundreds to thousands of lanes lined up side by side. Its ability to deliver such massive bandwidth at incredibly high speeds with very low latency is what makes it a must have for deploying 5G technology.

And just as an effective transportation system consists of the right mix of freeways and superhighways to meet all transportation needs, a high-performing wireless network is made up of an appropriate mix of spectrum bands.

Millimeter wave technology is evolving to meet the needs of tomorrow’s next-gen networks

Despite the obvious benefits of ultra-wide bandwidth millimeter wave spectrum, there are those who doubt its viability for 5G – doubts I can only assume stem from their understanding of the spectrum as it was used in the past, not how technology has evolved to enable the use of it today.

The knock against millimeter wave spectrum in the past has been that, while it is clearly capable of carrying large amounts of data at high speeds, the signals are only usable in a line of sight environment requiring perfect alignment between the transmitter and receiver, that they’re easily affected by rain or snow and can’t get through any foliage, and that they can only travel, at most, a few hundred feet.

But as often happens as innovators work with and improve technology over time, we’ve learned how to leverage antenna and digital processing technologies to harness the benefits of millimeter wave spectrum.

When Verizon began its 5G field trials in 11 U.S. markets last year, we set our engineering expectations based on what we knew about millimeter wave spectrum before. But what we actually saw when we lit up those networks were performance and propagation results that exceeded our expectations.

For example, we expected the 5G signal to travel no higher than the sixth floor of a building, and the signals actually traveled to the 19th floor. We expected to see gigabit speeds at distances of no farther than several hundred feet from the cell tower, yet we saw those results at distances up to 2,000 feet.

Those are the kinds of things you learn about technology evolution and by actively building the future to change conventional beliefs.

Using millimeter wave’s characteristics to our advantage

Another key to making millimeter wave viable for 5G involves using the physical characteristics of that technology to our advantage. For example:

  • Focused Signal – using mid- and low-band frequencies to transmit signals is like using a lamp to light up a dark room – the signals emanate from the transmitter and spread across the coverage area. That’s great for more open areas. Millimeter wave, on the other hand, is like using a focused spotlight beam to light specific areas of the room. This makes it a perfect match for small cell architecture where the signal is focused on covering a specific area in an urban environment. By leveraging an already densified small cell network, we can use millimeter wave to deploy 5G technology faster.
  • Beam Tracking – recent advances in digital processing allow us to rapidly select and track the best beam coming from any direction. In fact, our 5G trials showed that identifying the best signal among a series of narrow, non-interfering beams is achievable. We’ve even successfully “bounced” the millimeter wave signals off buildings to reach places in ways we didn’t think feasible in the past.
  • Ultra-Low Latency – because of the ultra-wide channel bandwidth of millimeter wave, the resulting transmission latency is better than current low- and mid-band spectrum. This means a super responsive network that can support immersive applications such as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.
  • Spectrum Slicing – millimeter wave’s ultra-wide bandwidth also makes creating slices of spectrum to carry specific network traffic easily achievable. The benefit is a highly efficient multi-use common network that can be used by both consumer and enterprise applications.
  • Small Form Factor – advances in antenna technology also allow us to use millimeter wave spectrum more efficiently. The development of smaller and smaller antenna elements means you can pack a large number of them into a small package such as a smartphone. And our small cell infrastructure can fit thousands of little millimeter wave antenna elements to send and receive signals.

You can learn more about some of these techniques here.

The mobile-first consumer will demand more powerful networks

Consumer demand and our increasingly mobile-first lifestyles are driving the evolution to 5G. Just as the growth of 4G LTE networks fundamentally changed our expectations for how a wireless network can perform, tomorrow’s increasingly data-intensive applications requiring high speeds, large bandwidth and near real-time response times will be satisfied by 5G on millimeter wave spectrum. A decade from now, we’ll look back and consider things like autonomous vehicles, remote industrial robotics, cloud gaming, remote healthcare and smart cities solutions powered by the 5G network to be the norm. Thanks to millimeter wave spectrum, 5G is about to transform the ways we live, learn, work and play. I am super excited to be a part of building this 5G future.