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Navigating the 5G obstacle course
The availability of high-performance 5G could be patchy for many years to come
The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. That adage will ring particularly true for 5G even in a developed country like The Netherlands. Although this versatile new mobile technology could create a huge amount of value , there are likely to be major variations in the capacity of 5G networks from place to place for some time to come.
Once higher frequency spectrum is available in 2022 in The Netherlands, most city centers and transport hubs will be served by very high-speed and responsive networks. But other neighborhoods may still have to make do with “5G-lite” ¹ or 4G, as mobile operators balk at the cost and complexity of deploying large numbers of new cells. In some cases, companies will establish their own private 5G networks to bring guaranteed high capacity and high reliability coverage across a confined area, such as a campus, production plant or logistics hub.
The uneven rollout of 5G will reflect the tricky obstacle course mobile operators will face as they seek to deploy this new technology. You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. And you can’t deploy a 5G network without installing new cell sites and digging up roads to lay the necessary fiber.
Denser networks, greater opposition
To make high-speed connectivity truly ubiquitous, 5G networks will need to be significantly denser than their predecessors. In fact, the number of antennas in The Netherlands may have to increase by between 3X and 5X to underpin 5G networks operating at higher frequencies (e.g. 3.5GHz). Achieving that won’t be easy - both homeowners and local policymakers tend to have reservations about new cell sites, either on aesthetic / environmental grounds or because they believe that cellphone signals pose health risks. In Switzerland, one of the first countries to rollout 5G, about 3,000 people joined a protest in Bern in September calling for “radiation free zones”. In urban 5G networks, antennas will often need to be located relatively close to the ground, exacerbating concerns about radiation, despite the scientific evidence.
The aesthetic objections are more rational. Installing new masts and antennas inevitably alters the urban landscape, particularly in historic districts, while digging up streets to deploy the required fiber can cause major traffic disruption. The Dutch are particularly protective of their cityscapes: Several municipalities in the Netherlands have already expressed their concerns to the Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate. At the same time, mobile operators have to deal with increasingly professional building owners looking to negotiate much higher site rentals than was the case with previous generations of mobile technology.
Shift to network sharing
All of this implies increased costs and complexity for telcos. Given the uncertainty around the revenues 5G will generate, telcos could be forgiven for treading cautiously. However, there are things operators and municipalities can do to mitigate these challenges. Network sharing should be a priority, starting with passive elements, such as masts, land and backhaul links. This already happens, but could be further optimized.
Sharing of active network components, such as antennas, is also rising up operators’ agenda. For example, Vodafone and TIM in Italy have announced an agreement that would enable them to jointly roll out 5G infrastructure. The Italian operators say this “active network sharing project” will support a faster deployment of 5G over a wider geographic area, at a lower cost. Although the implications of network sharing will be closely watched by competition authorities, Dutch regulator ACM and the European Electronic Communications Code have both recognized that infrastructure sharing can help extend coverage by lowering costs for operators.
Some operators are forming independent tower companies, which can focus on maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of the network infrastructure, as well as providing operators with the cash flows required to support massive 5G investments. Vodafone, for example, plans to spin off a new standalone business, called TowerCo, comprising 61,700 Vodafone masts across 10 countries.
Mobile operators can also work with municipalities to develop innovative ways round the lack of suitable sites for new antennas and to improve the wayleave process, which often involves long approval cycles. For example, local governments may be prepared to rent out space on street lamps, which are generally at the right height to support 5G. At the same time, public-private partnerships could run educational campaigns highlighting the scientific research into the impact of mobile networks on health.
Open can be more flexible and cheaper
Another way to lower the cost of 5G is to employ so-called Open RAN (radio access network) technology – a combination of vendor-agnostic hardware and software that can lower costs and accelerate implementation. A vibrant Open RAN ecosystem is now emerging, making it feasible for telcos and enterprises to deploy a network architecture where core and RAN functions run on ‘white box’ hardware and open source software. That would reduce telcos’ dependency on specific vendors. A new hybrid architecture, in which carrier-grade equipment supplied by traditional network vendors coexists with Open RAN equipment, should be able to deliver high quality connectivity at a much lower price point.
Enterprises now have far more flexibility about how they make use of connectivity technology: As well as being compatible with Wi-Fi, 5G is designed to support high levels of customization and control. Recognising that, mobile operators are developing new propositions for both large and small companies. Deutsche Telekom, for example, recently announced a product, called Campus L, which offers an enterprise its own private mobile network with assured network resources on the company premises. It includes the installation of a mobile radio antenna, as well as a dedicated server on premises. Edge computing, both on premises and in the cloud, it set to be widely available in 2020.
If they want to harness the full potential of 5G, many enterprises may need to be proactive and drive the deployment agenda, as the Netherlands and other European countries are unlikely to be completely covered by super fast 5G networks within the next five years. Moreover, innovative enterprise use cases may require even higher levels of reliability than those available from the standard cellphone network. If they work with the thriving ecosystem of vendors, service providers and telecommunication operators, enterprises can be front-runners in 5G adoption and really reap the benefits of this potent new technology.
¹ 5G networks operating in low frequency spectrum will have limited capacity and won’t be as fast as 5G networks operating in high frequency spectrum.
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