$1.3 trillion will be spent on mobile networks across all technology generations in the next 5 years, and, according to the GSMA, a staggering 75% of this will be 5G investment. Yet despite the considerable CAPEX operators are prepared to invest in their 5G networks, research shows they are looking at 5G as a marathon not a sprint.
Why? Well, given the lessons learned from 4G roll outs and the knowledge there are a number of significant hurdles on the road to 5G, being able to solve these issues ahead of time will be critical to ensure the next generation of mobile technology does not become an investment blackhole.
From an infrastructure perspective, the biggest challenges posed by 5G can be split into three areas: cell site constraints, delivering 5G in cities, and securing ROI.
Firstly, site constraints. Cell sites are finite and 4G systems will be a critical part of operator business models for the foreseeable future. 5G needs to deliver on its high capacity promises, but simply expanding the infrastructure footprint isn’t an option. Secondly, the associated issue of delivering 5G coverage in urban locations. Cities are undoubtedly one of the areas where 5G use cases show the most promise. However, delivering the level of penetration needed to support this is a hurdle to be overcome.
Finally, there is the bottom line. There needs to be a slow and steady approach to capital expenditure as 5G investments need to show ROI. Operators are keen to ‘invest once and invest right’ and need an approach to maximise this.
The base station space race
Site constraints are nothing new, but they are a significant headache for operators as they look to 5G. Sites are already overcrowded and procuring new sites is a significant logistical and financial challenge, if indeed possible at all.
As a typical site already supports many different antennas and bands for a variety of purposes and operators, trying to add new ones also creates a long, expensive, and complicated negotiation process with site owners. The answer, then, is to find a way of deploying 5G (or LTE-A and 5G-ready) active antennas, with antenna arrays supporting mMIMO technologies including beamforming, onto existing sites as efficiently as possible.
5G by stealth
This is where 5G by stealth comes into play. This means the antenna infrastructure itself looks exactly the same as it did before, but the functionality is significantly enhanced. For example, an Active Passive Antenna will maintain the form factor of typical passive base station antennas. However, by integrating active components it is able to support 4G and 5G networks, and thereby circumvent one of the biggest challenges that operators face around 5G.
Additionally, as we see operators take a cautious approach to 5G investment, modular equipment will come to the fore. Looking at antennas as building blocks – by deploying 4G antennas that will allow for plug-in of 5G active components after the antenna installation itself – will smooth the way to next generation infrastructure.
Design is the key to inner city coverage
Design is one of the most essential aspects of 5G, and form factor has never been more important. As we move away from the base station to delivering coverage in dense urban areas, the challenges ultimately remain the same. The goal, of course, is to deliver new 5G technology without significantly increasing the infrastructure needed to power it. The approach, however, will be somewhat different.
Cities will offer some of the best use cases that will help to drive ROI on operator investment. However, delivering the coverage and capacity needed is a challenge. Consumers want the benefits of 5G but without the increase in visible telecoms equipment. Operators therefore need to focus on infrastructure that has emotional transparency for consumers. That’s equipment that can be concealed or blend into the background.
The design of equipment is more critical than ever before, and operators need to work with OEMs and RF specialists that are capable of designing this ‘transparent’ infrastructure. This means equipment that is truly capable of blending into the background through concealment or integrating with existing structures such as street furniture. Be it wireless backhaul, distributed antenna systems and RF wideband, or MIMO-ready radiating cable systems that can support in-building and in-tunnel connectivity – the infrastructure needs to provide capacity without creating an eyesore.
Future proofing 5G
Once the design elements have been tackled, operators then must focus on a sustainable roll out of 5G that guarantees ROI. The slower approach to investment, as indicated by the GSMA, will certainly help operators as they look to build networks to last. But, in many cases, taking a modular approach can offer the future proofing operators are looking for.
Active Passive Antennas are a perfect example. They combine the passive components needed for legacy frequency transmissions with the active components needed for 3.5 GHz mMIMO transmissions in 5G networks in a single antenna. An approach such as this minimizes the space and visual impact and allows operators to achieve more with less equipment. Not only this, but they can also run a staggered approach to infrastructure roll out.
Newer antenna systems are planned with modular architecture that allows mobile operators to deploy a passive antenna today then seamlessly upgrade the antenna with active components when the time is right, and with no impact on either the passive or active aspects of antenna performance.
This means operators benefit from continued support for 4G networks as significant revenue generators, and allows CAPEX to be spread out as the active modules can be introduced on a rolling basis with the benefits of a future proof model. Upgradable equipment will be at the heart of future proofing next generation networks, so it is vital that OEMs and RF specialists factor this in.
Operators that are smart when it comes to CAPEX will win out. Those that are able to define a strategy that allows them to see ROI from 5G will stand head and shoulders above the rest, and a staggered and modular approach may hold the answer. Additionally, consolidating equipment to reduce footprint will be one of the biggest trends in network infrastructure over the next 12 months, and those operators that succeed in this area will see the biggest rewards in the long run. When it comes to 5G, more needs to be done with less – more capacity, higher throughput, but in less space with lower visual impact.
The combination of these needs is where stealth 5G comes to the fore, delivering end-to-end solutions that can be easily deployed to overcome the challenges operators face around space, visual impact and network complexity. Not only this, but it avoids one big rip and replace roll out and allows it to be deployed in a way that allows a balance between CAPEX and ROI.
For operators, this means working with OEMs that are capable of packing significantly more functionality into the same form factor of existing equipment. Those that can embrace this concept, and source equipment that tackles the challenges of easy deployment, space, visual impact and network complexity, then deploy it in a way that will have a favourable impact on the bottom line, will be the ones to come out on top.
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