NASHVILLE, Tenn.–There are numerous challenges ahead for 5G network deployments, as the next generation of wireless technology moves from the lab to field testing to commercial deployments over the next few years.
During a session at the National Association of Tower Erectors conference this week, panelists discussed the ongoing densification of wireless networks and how those efforts are expected to ramp up even more in a 5G world. The top challenges for 5G included:
– Access to spectrum. John Hunter, senior director of technology and engineering policy for T-Mobile US, emphasized that 5G will not be a particular bad — an oft-heard point from T-Mobile US, which plans to use its newly acquired 600 MHz spectrum to deploy 5G servicse. Hunter said that low- mid- and high-band spectrum will all be needed to make 5G a reality, and he also noted that the shorter propagation range of mmwave spectrum means that deployments are likely to be very infrastructure-intensive, with some expectations projecting that 10 times the current number of sites will be needed for 5G networks. Hunter estimated the range of a mmwave site at 1,000-feet to 1,500 feet.
The NATE Unite panel touched briefly on the issue of what framework will ultimately emerge for the Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum at 3.5 GHz, and Hunter argued that since the CBRS framework was first developed, the rest of the world has moved toward looking at mid-band spectrum for 5G — and that as the rules stand, the power limits and the size of the census tracts complicate future deployments.
In terms of T-Mobile US’ spectrum position, Hunter said that T-Mobile US is “making significant process in clearing the 600 MHz spectrum” and that more than 50 broadcasters have committed to early repacking of the spectrum, a process which clears the spectrum in order to create contiguous chunks for wireless services. Hunter said that T-Mobile US’ work on clearing AWS-1 spectrum, where the uplink at 1.7 GHz has federal incumbents, is “progressing nicely.” He said that the spectrum-clearing process takes “engagement across the board” but that the carrier so far “[hasn’t] seen any shortage of resources to meet the need,” including tower crews.
– The need for streamlined deployment processes. Several panelists said that regulatory red tape is a huge barrier to scaling small cells, including municipalities’ timelines as well as sometimes-exorbitant fees imposed at the local level on wireless infrastructure. There are numerous regulatory streamlining proposals under consideration at the state and federal levels, according to Rebecca Murphy Thompson, EVP and general counsel for the Competitive Carriers Association. But the challenge to scale small cells to meet the needs of ultra-dense 5G networks also extends to how tower companies and crews adjust deployment approaches and evolve their skills. Bernard Borghei, co-founder and senior vice president of operations for tower company Vertical Bridge, said that tower companies can’t just focus on building tall towers any longer, and that working in urban areas, at street level with urban furniture or on rooftops, means new processes for site design and building. The demand for fiber connectivity also requires new skills for tower technicians.
– Access to capital. This point was made by Brian Regan, senior director for start-up Starry, which uses millimeter wave frequencies to provide wireless internet service. While using wireless connections for internet services is far less expensive than installing fiber over the same area, he said, 5G is still shaping up to be capital intensive.
“Whatever 5G becomes is going to require infrastructure investments,” said Regan.
Alongside concerns about access to capital, were points about how companies will recoup the cost of 5G build-outs. While fixed wireless services are emerging as the first use case for 5G in metropolitan areas, Rebecca Murphy Thompson, EVP and general counsel for the Competitive Carriers Association noted, there are still “a lot of questions about the business case in rural areas for 5G,” especially as many smaller operators are still working on their LTE deployments.
“There aren’t always a lot of [subscribers]there that will allow these companies to recoup the costs,” added Jessica Gyllstrom, an attorney who advises companies on telecom regulation.
Borghei responded that most of the services which require LTE service were not envisioned when the systems were first deployed. He also said that while LTE had quite rapid deployments within a period of about five years, he expects that it will be a decade before 5G networks are broadly established on a national basis.