Interview with Sylvia Lu from u-blox

  • Sylvia Lu - Head of Technology Strategy, Product Center Cellular, u-blox

Sylvia Lu

everything RF recently had a chance to interview Sylvia Lu, the Head of Technology Strategy, Product Center Cellular at u-blox. Sylvia has over a decade of experience in the Telecom industry for four mobile generations (2G, 3G, 4G and 5G) and was recently recognized as one of the UK's Top 50 Women in Engineering. She has been critically instrumental in the evolution of global technology standards for the Cellular Internet of Things to enable economics of scale - a technology which has now been deployed globally over billions.

Sylvia heads cellular technology strategy at u-blox, provides guidance on the impact of 5G technologies on products and strategy, as well as major inter-sector, multi-country international projects. She also provides industry-focused, independent advice to the UK government and policy panels on future plans for 5G development.

Q. Can you tell us about 5G Technology? What are the main advantages over 4G and existing Cellular Technologies?

Sylvia Lu: 5G is about expanding wireless access technologies to a much wider range of verticals, in sectors like utilities, automotive, industrial, broadcast, healthcare and satellite. Therefore its significance is a new landscape of cross industry collaboration and partnership triggered and catalyzed through 5G, which leads to a new and evolving 5G ecosystem.

5G is expected to stretch the capabilities of the mobile infrastructure across the world well beyond the capabilities of current wireless access technologies such as 4G.

  • eMBB (Enhanced Mobile Broadband) E.g. Mobile broadband/fixed wireless, virtual reality/augmented reality/mixed reality, UHD video, video monitoring, mobile cloud/computing, virtual meeting.
  • uRLLC (Ultra reliable and low latency communications) E.g. public safety, industrial control & automation, unmanned vehicles / drones / robots, remote surgery, V2X.
  • mMTC (Massive Machine type communications) E.g. smart home, smart cities, health care monitoring, wearables, inventory control, industrial IoT (IIoT).

The most significant features include support for ultra-low latency, high reliability, advanced antenna technologies, millimeter wave spectrum, massive numbers of devices for Internet of Things (IoT), spectrum flexibility (including operation in high frequency bands) and inter-working between high and low frequency bands.

Q. Can you tell us more about when and how 5G Technology will roll-out globally?

Sylvia Lu: The success of 5G depends on the smooth migration and efficient coexistence of the current wireless systems and the new systems. To achieve that, 3GPP defined two types of deployment architecture, Non-standalone (NSA) and Standalone (SA). The first wave of 5G NR network deployment and devices are referred to as 5G NR NSA, where LTE is used as an anchor carrier to ensure coverage and to provide signaling on existing 4G LTE networks, while NR is used at higher frequencies to provide high capacity. The SA mode however removes the need for an LTE anchor and requires a full 5G network buildout. The initial deployment is expected in low bands, as well as mid bands to serve new use cases, such as private or enterprise networks.

One of the key ingredients of 5G which has already gained its place in the 5G era is LPWA technology. It is important to note that despite both LTE-M and NB-IoT use 4G LTE air interface, they are both part of 5G as both meet IMT-2020 mMTC requirements. Furthermore, NB-IoT and LTE-M devices that comply with 3GPP Releases 15 and 16 will continue to use a 4G LTE air interface. 5G NR radio access networks could offer in-band support for LTE-M and NB-IoT as an option (at the mobile network operator’s discretion) in 3GPP Rel 16 (expected to be completed in June 2020).

Q. 5G Operates across two broad frequency bands - FR1 and FR2. How will the two very different frequency bands be used?

Sylvia Lu: 5G NR supports operation in the spectrum ranging from sub-GHz to mmWave bands. Two frequency ranges (FR) are defined in Release 15:

  • FR1: 450 MHz - 7.125 GHz, commonly referred to as sub-6 GHz
  • FR2: 24.25 GHz - 52.6 GHz, commonly referred to as mmWave

The mmWave spectrum will support super-high speed use cases, such as fiber replacement and broadband applications. The sub-6 GHz spectrum will be used for ultra-low latency, high reliability requirements, as well as more traditional IoT or automotive use cases.

Q. With so many different frequency bands in play, will a single 5G device be able to operate globally? i.e How will international roaming work?

Sylvia Lu: In the 5G era, frequency bands will have a much tighter correlation with use cases compared to LTE. For example, for C-V2X applications, the band that vehicular devices need to support for sidelink communication (e.g. V2V) will be B47, this is a single band that will be recognised in many regions.

Q. What are the cases that will drive the early adoption of 5G Technologies?

Sylvia Lu: Early adoption of 5G is driven by use cases that can be supported in 3GPP Rel 15, specifically in NSA deployments. This means mMTC use cases in the LPWA space and high data rate use cases in the consumer space, including mobile phone and FWA.

Q. What role will 5G play to enable IoT and Autonomous Driving?

Sylvia Lu: For IoT applications, 5G brings additional functionality to complement existing LTE-M and NB-IoT networks. This is to address use cases that require lower latency and slightly higher data rate than what can be supported by LPWA technologies. Examples include connectivity for industrial wireless sensor networks (IWSN), video surveillance in the factory and wearables.

For Autonomous Driving, we view the two leading communication technologies, DSRC and C-V2X continue their complementary roles in the 5G era. DSRC is the appropriate technology for safety-related real-time critical applications today. It is mature, cost effective and available for immediate deployment. C-V2X (cellular V2X) is an important complementary technology, especially for advanced autonomous driving use cases where the vehicle can drive autonomously in extended range.

It will provide a very fast data pipe for vehicle networks and alternative data paths to mobile devices, expanding the use-cases. However, it will take years some time before it is ready for mass market deployment.

Q. Which cellular IoT technology is currently gaining more traction globally - NB-IoT or LTE-M? Is one technology better suited or easier to roll out with 5G?

Sylvia Lu: Many large MNOs have rolled out both LTE-M and NB-IoT networks. In the global market, we currently see more traction for LTE-M. Some of the reasons are the large number of uses cases that can be supported due to the higher data rate (as compared to NB-IoT), support of mobile use cases and voice. NB-IoT will likely be used for more specific use cases, such as metering, where lowest device cost, longest battery life and better in-building penetration are most important. Early roll out with 5G might be seen for re-farmed LTE spectrum, where existing LTE-M or NB-IoT applications are deployed within a NR carrier.

Q. From a technical standpoint, what are some challenges that 5G technology will face or is facing?

Sylvia Lu: 5G system must be closely compatible with existing communication technologies, such as industrial Ethernet systems and existing wireless connectivity in the factory. Particularly for “Brownfield” factories, a seemly integration and migration path should be thought through clearly from the very beginning.

Reducing form factor and power consumption of the 5G NR devices is the key to enable 5G adoption for some industrial applications, such as industrial wireless sensors, collaborative robots in a constrained indoor environment.

Transparency of 5G connection in the radio access and core network is essential. The existing cellular technology and network 2G, 3G, 4G, do not have standardised method for industrial applications to access real-time diagnostic information. But this level of real time information is essential for monitoring network performance and for effective root-cause analysis to ensure the level of the service and reliability of the connection is guaranteed in the factory.

Q. Do you feel the COVID-19 Pandemic will have a major impact on the roll-out of 5G Technology?

Sylvia Lu: Unlike travel industry, with an estimated 44% revenue loss in 2020 (IATA) compared to 2019, telecoms is a relatively resilient sector. Some early analysis done predicted that the impact of COVID-19 on telecoms leads to a year-on-year 3~4% decline in revenue in 2020. Given the magnitude of the current crisis on economy, in the short term, telecoms may have no choice but to protect existing revenue, which may mean that capex may be reduced for some time.

Q. Can you tell us about the UBX-R5 NB-IoT/LTE CAT-M Module Series? What do you mean when you say it is 5G Ready?

Sylvia Lu: UBX-R5 is u-blox’s LTE-M / NB-IoT chipset with integrated Common Criteria EAL5+ High certified IoT Secure Element. It is the chipset on which our SARA-R5 module platform is based. They are 5G-ready, meaning customers will be able to (software) upgrade their deployed devices, once  5G LPWA has been rolled out by mobile operators, greatly improving end product scalability and lifetime.

5G LPWA from Rel-15 is the evolution of Rel-14 LPWA and is backward compatible with 4G LPWA. Rel-15 NB-IoT evolution and LTE-M evolution are both regarded as 5G technologies and will continue to address LPWA use cases.

SARA-R5 modules support u-blox unique security based services, making them the ideal choice for devices that transmit critical and confidential information. The SARA-R5 modules benefit from the technology ownership of the entire value chain and are combined with an internal, hardware-based, secure element and a lightweight pre-shared key management system that guarantee state-of-the-art security. SARA-R510M8S is pre-integrated with the u-blox M8 GNSS receiver and separate GNSS antenna interface, which provides highly reliable, accurate positioning data in parallel to LTE communication.


Q. What part of the 5G ecosystem does u-blox cater to or plans to cater to?

Sylvia Lu: u-blox is a maker of cellular modules and chipsets for positioning, cellular and short range technologies. We are actively evaluating demand and timing for a variety of 5G use cases and are planning to support the evolution of modules and chipsets, specifically for industrial and automotive applications. We focus on creating value for our customers with things that matter to them most: a stable roadmap, long product lifecycles, a single source for customer support and feature optimization for the IoT. With a product portfolio that spans cellular, positioning and short range technologies, we view 5G technology as complementary to high precision positioning and V2X (802.11p) technologies.