I expect 2018 will be a productive year when wired and wireless network operators really start sorting out what's possible from the hype with 5G cellular.
We certainly saw early irrational exuberance about all the wonderful things 5G will do. We also have passed through the depression that occurs when we realize building 5G is going to be tough to pull off. But we are now on the upswing after the 3GPP finalized the non-standalone 5G New Radio standard, enabling further developments.
This year it’s time to get down to what’s really possible. Densification, virtualization, optimization and simplification of networks will continue to be operator goals. I also see the spirit experimentation among customers, as test beds and trials build steam.
Among the many challenges ahead, perhaps the greatest is the convergence of wired and wireless networks, opening up new business models. Many of our customers are reorganizing around this concept, breaking down silos within their company as formerly separate businesses come together.
Many operators are focused on driving fiber deeper into their networks to enable Centralized or Cloud RAN architectures and large-scale small-cell deployments that bring the fiber closer to subscribers. Companies with existing fiber networks are monetizing them by selling access for small cell backhaul. Some are even building their own small cell networks and leasing them out to wireless operators.
These dynamics are spawning unlikely partnerships between cable companies, wireless providers and neutral hosts. Market dynamics are in flux which, of course, can create anxiety but also points toward new opportunities.
There’s also convergence of licensed and unlicensed spectrum as new frequencies such as 3.5 GHz open up as one of the global 5G bands. The Citizen Broadband Radio Service in the U.S. will support both licensed and unlicensed users and enable new use cases such as private and wholesale LTE networks.
Lots of new business and use cases are being talked about in 3.5 GHz. A manufacturer could deploy a private LTE network in this band to wirelessly control robotics in a factory. Or a neutral host could deploy an LTE network in a stadium or shopping mall and sell capacity to service providers.
Amid the changes, LTE will remain a constant for years to come as the foundation for the network-of-networks that 5G promises. Someday, 5G will become the primary macro network technology, but 5G will likely start as a capacity enhancement for areas with high concentrations of users and as a driver, opening up new uses cases in vertical markets.
Today LTE is reaching100 Mbits/second+ speeds in downloads and uploads and some gigabit LTE sites are already appearing. LTE latency is often below 20 milliseconds in many parts of the network.
The long-term promise of 5G is a combination of even higher speeds, lower latency and lower power devices. Architectural changes in 5G will enable operators to select fronthaul options that optimize for best latency or throughput performance. Ultimately, 5G will enable very low latency applications for the Internet of Things such as industrial manufacturing with robotic manufacturing coordinated wirelessly.
Pesky small cells, millimeter waves
Among the near-term challenges, small cells are still too hard to deploy. Site acquisition is a huge challenge. We’re starting to see larger volume projects, but it still takes longer than anyone wants.
Zoning processes that last 12 months or more are too long. My hope for 2018 is real movement on nationwide efforts to standardize and speed small cell deployments. We need to agree on a common set of siting rules, nationalize roles and compress timelines for the plotting cycle of new sites.
5G’s use in millimeter wave bands brings other challenges because signal distortion is rampant in the higher frequencies. Fixed wireless access deployments in mm-wave bands will be well suited to massive MIMO and active antennas.
If operators want to add new spectrum or technologies, they need to find space in already-crowded towers. Typically, this requires antenna replacements that support existing frequency bands plus add the new ones.
Despite the challenges, this year will see significant progress in defining 5G both as a standard and for real-world implementations. It isn’t here yet, but it’s going to be fun figuring out how to make 5G happen.
--Ben Cardwell is the senior vice president and segment leader of CommScope Mobility Solutions.