Skimming the headlines, you might be led to believe that 5G is coming any day now. Some carriers talk about it like it’s here and we’re already starting to see television commercials hyping 5G-enabled phones. But the truth is only a few mobile operators have launched 5G, and those that have are covering extremely small areas in just a handful of U.S. cities.
In reality, we are years away from any sort of 5G ubiquity. The deployment of 5G is akin to playing a 16-inning baseball game with a five-hour rain delay—and we’re only in the bottom of the first. Several key issues facing both operators and municipalities must be overcome before 5G deployment can be achieved at scale.
One significant hurdle that remains in the way of nationwide 5G deployment is consistency. An overall lack of universal regulatory and legal standards, varying spectrum allocations, different equipment sizes and specifications, varying mounting structures, as well as state and local governments reluctant to adopt permitting standards are all causing considerable delay in rolling out 5G.
In particular, the complex, ever-changing regulatory landscape continues to impact carrier and infrastructure provider strategy, planning and execution of 5G initiatives. Governing bodies and their employees are dealing with detailed regulations that, if not executed properly, could culminate in legal battles.
Standards and spectrum allocations
5G has been assigned to the frequency bands around 600 MHz and 24+ GHz, with mid-band spectrum of 2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz and 3.7-4.2 GHz soon coming into the mix. Each carrier has been assigned different spectrum bands, and each band has different requirements for density (how many towers and antennas will be needed), tower height, and other parameters that impact their unique design and small cell needs. Because of this, it’s not easy to decide on a uniform way to deploy the hundreds or thousands of 5G antennas that will be needed in each city, even within the same carrier or city to city.
The economics will be different as well. According to McKinsey, a “low- to mid-band 5G network, especially in bands below 2 GHz, would look and cost much the same as current LTE networks,” with deployment costs similar for cell sites of comparable density. Using high-band spectrum, on the other hand, “would require a fundamentally different architecture with much denser networks. The total cost of ownership of deploying small cells at this density would be four to six times higher than for LTE macro-cell deployment.”
There’s no simple roadmap that can be followed for 5G—each rollout will be different. Standards bodies have provided general parameters for 5G small cells facilities, and the FCC recently stepped in with its guidelines for 5G deployments covering schedules, fees, coverage areas and other factors. However, recent regulatory amendments and clarifications have been repealed, or at least have reduced the impact of last year’s FCC orders, which promoted the deployment of infrastructure needed to support 5G. While the regulatory landscape affecting small cell deployment was greatly promoted in 2018, recent repeals have, again, throttled the impact of the FCC’s efforts.
At the same time, nearly half of the U.S. states are taking notice of the FCC’s guidelines and enacting their own small cell wireless bills. While this is a necessary step to gain broad 5G acceptance, the state laws will likely have growing pains of their own in terms of implementation.
These difficulties create substantial uncertainty in projecting infrastructure costs and service delivery dates. This uncertainty, in turn, causes carriers and infrastructure providers to slow roll capital investment or enter certain markets.
Since each carrier has a different spectrum that impacts what their small cell deployment will look like, the equipment they’re using looks and performs differently. Some are using horizontal boxes that are about the size of a large suitcase, while others are the size of a briefcase. Current pole structures being used for 5G are much lighter in weight compared to the hundred-foot-plus towers used in 3G/4G macro cell networks that are shared by multiple carriers. In some instances, an existing utility pole which already provides space for a small cell facility may not be able to accommodate another carrier or second 5G-capable small cell facility.
The only current solution to this situation is the removal and replacement of the current pole with a new one, the relocation of the original small cell facility, and the installation of the new 5G equipment. This scenario makes adding a second carrier to a pole as, or more expensive than adding it to the original infrastructure. That, in turn, makes the financial model more complex than with previous generations of wireless technology.
Competition and confusion
Always competing for subscriber numbers and performance milestones, wireless carriers are not in the habit of collaborating. But in order to achieve the goal of successful 5G rollouts, they will need to find ways to deploy and share pole infrastructure to keep costs down.
At the same time, they must work with and educate individual cities and towns across the U.S. City officials are accustomed to working with operators who want to place and maintain three or four macrocell sites per year. The advent of 5G means there are suddenly hundreds or thousands of cell sites to review for each city. The sheer volume of sites to approve is creating slowdowns for 5G deployments.
The future of 5G is bright—it’s just a long way off
Despite the buzz, a closer look reveals some very real challenges that must be addressed before meaningful progress on 5G deployments.
That said, when the obstacles are removed and the industry begins to see more uniformity over time, 5G will eventually be realized at scale, with higher-bandwidth capabilities able to support a wealth of new applications and a vastly improved mobile experience.
But the question remains—when will 5G really arrive?
According to data from TeleGeography, there are 34 3GPP standardized commercial 5G networks operating globally, with 77 expected by the end of this year. Ovum expects 156 million 5G connections worldwide and 32 million in North America by end of 2021.
Unfortunately, the move to 5G is different than moving from 3G to 4G. Although 5G-enabled handsets will soon be available, ubiquitous 5G in any major market is still years away and there are still many complex problems to solve.
On the bright side, carriers will make some incremental improvements by leveraging 5G at the macro level, helping to deliver better speeds for applications like those found in the Internet of Things, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. However, due to the complexities of making this upgrade, there’s still a long way to go to get to the seventh-inning stretch. But settle in, it’s going to be an exciting game.