The mobile industry is in the very early days of scaling 5G despite a seemingly large number of operators deploying 5G networks. Like previous generational transitions, operators primarily will focus on 5G coverage expansion outdoors, followed by in-fill densification and indoor deployments at key destination venues like sports stadiums to ensure that 5G is available where users expect it.
While we often talk about “5G” in a monolithic term, it is not a singular technology, network, or service, per se, but an amalgamation of multiple technologies, spectrum and network choices, and other factors that ultimately lead to different 5G network infrastructure and services that operators launch.
For instance, early 5G services primarily will focus on enhanced mobile broadband and some fixed wireless services enabled through large bandwidth spectrum and massive MIMO radios supporting Release 15 features. Ultra-reliable low latency and massive machine-type communication features in Release 16 and 17 will open up new market opportunities including Private LTE and 5G in the years to come.
The bottom line is that 5G networks will differ, and 5G coverage will be a patchwork of networks. And this will be especially pronounced in indoor deployments where there are more stakeholders involved, including: building owners, system integrators, managed service providers, and mobile operators.
For outdoor 5G expansion, the network choice is largely dependent on the spectrum. For instance, 5G network deployments in Asia and Europe are largely based on massive MIMO radios taking advantage of a large swath of the 3-4 GHz mid-band. Meanwhile, 5G deployments in North America have been varying. T-Mobile has been touting 5G on the 600 MHz band while Sprint has been touting its LTE and 5G split-mode massive MIMO radios running on the 2.5 GHz band. AT&T and Verizon, meanwhile, have been focused on millimeter wave deployments in selective urban hotspots, including parts of NFL stadiums for mobile broadband and fixed wireless access. Until the C-band allocation for mobile gets sorted out, the U.S. operators will be focused on 5G expansion in their respective spectrum strongholds.
For indoor 5G deployments, the complexity expands exponentially by the fragmented nature of stakeholders involved in cellular deployment indoors. Besides the operators, the system integrators, who provide cellular in-building wireless network expertise, and building owners are involved in commercial arrangements and network installation and on-going operations. In some cases, neutral-host service providers may get involved in the mix as well.
Besides the business model complexities, expanding choices of the spectrum, network architectures, use cases, and stakeholders make 5G indoor deployments challenging. The requirements and choices of 5G expansion indoors will require “descending into the particular.” (The quoted phrase is borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast on moral reasoning where a particular case is compared against a “standard” case to resolve a moral issue. This is similar to case studies taught in business school where lessons are derived from case studies.)
The “standard” case of using DAS, small cell, or Wi-Fi for a given in-building wireless project needs to be examined against the “particulars” involved for that project. Deploying a CBRS network for private LTE applications may be desirable for a managed service provider in one case, while active DAS deployment may be more suitable in another.
For example, an active DAS may be suitable to support 5G running on sub-6GHz bands in very large public venues like stadiums to facilitate the multi-operator support. Also, 5G millimeter wave overlay may be required at those stadiums to augment network capacity for high-throughput, low-latency applications such as real-time augmented reality and virtual reality, and multi-view live streaming or replays.
On the other hand, passive DAS or repeater installations may be just fine in some low-density venues. Indoor spaces across vertical segments range broadly, from high-density stadiums to low-density warehouses, and the price elasticity varies widely by market segments as well. Building owners, neutral host providers, and mobile operators have differing views on who should pay for indoor cellular projects, so technical solutions must properly reflect commercial arrangements and business priorities.
While 5G indoor deployment decisions will be driven by economic reasoning rather than a moral one as illuminated in Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, they will require “descending into the particulars” such as business drivers, commercial arrangements, and network architecture choices to expand 5G indoors. 5G brings expanding capabilities and choices for indoor applications from Private LTE/5G to general in-building cellular connectivity and an increasing array of solution choices from DAS, Small Cells, D-RAN, C-RAN, and O-RAN. Taking 5G indoors will be a long process, and will likely follow an evolutionary path.
So, what should stakeholders do in their next in-building project? Descend into the particular, and identify an indoor cellular solution that meets the business goals. Enabling reliable and consistent LTE coverage indoors is a good starting point. Leaving room for expansion into 5G is a plus.
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. Over the course of his 20+ years in the wireless and cable industries in a dynamic range of roles from engineer to product manager and technology strategist, Mun has contributed to the advancement of mobile communication while working at leading companies in the mobile value chain including Motorola, Texas Instruments, Alcatel-Lucent and a few startups in between. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and Georgia Tech, and studied finance and strategy at Southern Methodist University.
"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.