With well over 100 5G networks launched worldwide, the multi-year 5G infrastructure cycle is well underway beyond the initial early markets in Korea and China. We are beginning to hear the familiar marketing claims along the lines of, “our 5G covers X millions of people.”
According to a Huawei executive, 5G network coverage in South Korea is only 25% of the population today, and about 10% in China. In the United States, T-Mobile is feverishly deploying 5G on its 2.5 GHz spectrum and reported that its mid-band 5G now covers 30 million people and expects to reach 100 million people by the end of this year, representing about 30% of the population.
Of course, most of the 5G coverage claims are based on outdoor macro deployments, leveraging massive MIMO, carrier aggregation, and other advanced features to extend network capacity as broadly as possible. While today’s “population coverage” claims primarily depend on outdoor macros, the 5G indoor deployments will undoubtedly follow to maintain user experiences.
The users will ultimately judge the 5G coverage claims. If the “outside in” 5G coverage isn’t available indoors, which is more likely in 5G as the operators increasingly rely on the higher frequency bands, user experiences will suffer.
Of course, the operators have been investing in indoor networks for many years, especially at key public venues like stadiums and airports to add coverage and capacity. As 5G expands across different geographies, from urban centers and highways to industrial sites and enterprise locations, and from low to mid and the high millimeter wave bands, the indoor network solutions must accommodate the broader ranges of spectrum bands, air interfaces, and differing venue requirements. As noted in our In-Building Wireless 2020 market study, the indoor solutions range from repeaters (or boosters) to small cells and distributed antenna systems (DAS).
A “coverage only” solution like repeaters may be sufficient for boosting signals in and out of smaller venues for indoor cellular and public safety applications, for example. Meanwhile, DAS is commonly deployed in high-capacity, large venues like stadiums as a shared infrastructure for bringing different operator signals into the venue. For mid-size venues or “private” spaces where multi-operator services may not be required, small cells provide both added coverage and incremental capacity to address various indoor connectivity needs, including indoor cellular and local Private LTE and 5G applications.
The disaggregation trends in open RAN and edge computing will bring flexible indoor solutions to the mix. Distributed small cells are generally favored for operator-specific and enterprise private wireless deployments, with edge computing platforms to handle low-latency applications. However, repeater and DAS solutions won’t disappear anytime soon. Dependent on application and venue type, we expect a mix of hybrid solutions, e.g., small cell-fed passive DAS.
The multi-year 5G infrastructure cycle will move from outdoor to indoor deployments. Besides ensuring consistent 5G user experiences, as operators increasingly address the industry sector with 5G, the indoor investment is imperative. Indoor solutions must encompass not just connectivity but edge computing in certain instances, e.g., a low-latency smart factory application. The indoor challenges are daunting – supporting multiple technologies (LTE, 5G) and frequency bands (low, mid, and high), venue types (commercial buildings to large sporting venues), and different applications (public safety, indoor cellular, and industrial wireless).
The 5G technology transition, encompassing higher bands and new application drivers, will drive the growth across the different in-building wireless solutions, but the operators can’t make the investment alone. The 5G indoor investments will require partnerships across the operators and enterprises (and cloud players in certain instances where low-latency applications need edge computing). A mix of public and private 5G networks will be tailored for private enterprise applications, making up close to 10% of total in-building wireless infrastructure investments in 2025, rising from less than 1% in 2020.
Kyung Mun is a senior analyst at Mobile Experts LLC, a network of market and technology experts that provides market analysis on the mobile infrastructure and mobile handset markets.
"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.