“This next generation network won’t be universal for a while due to lack of supporting cloud and backhaul infrastructures, and underlying indoor coverage challenges,” says Colin Abrey of Nextivity

5G rollout in the UK is slowly gaining momentum, with coverage now available in 383 towns and cities. This next-generation network promises totransform telecoms and give rise to a wealth of smart applications, paving the way for a truly autonomous world. However, with the main focus over the past two years having been around radio access networks, the real value creation opportunities will come with increasing 5G core network rollouts.

Whilst IoT has been growing for a while, long before the 5G phenomenon got started in fact, it has been given a turbocharge thanks to the pandemic with 5G networks expected to be its driving force. However, this new network is not going to impact mobile communications, on a user level anytime soon due to lack of supporting infrastructure. EE, for example, is not expecting to offer nationwide coverage until 2028. 5G networks therefore are going to co-exist alongside existing networks for at least another decade, with 4G remaining the predominant carrier of all voice and data traffic and the principal enabler to edge computing and IoT for the foreseeable future.

The infrastructure dilemma

Various initiatives have been introduced to accelerate the rollout of 5G. The rules pertaining to the construction of telco infrastructure, for example, have been completely overhauled by removing the need to seek building permission. The outcome of such a radical change has seen the emergence of giant mobile phone masts. Although their erection, to a certain extent, is aimed at improving rural connectivity as part of the shared communications network scheme, these infrastructures are also being built because of their “perceived ability” to support large volumes of 5G handsets because of the belief that their height will remove line of sight challenges.

A 5G network, in theory, should be able to simultaneously support more than a million devices per sq. km compared to the 60,000-odd devices on the current 4G networks. The reality, however, is somewhat different. The frequency bands allocated to 5G (either < 6 GHz or 28+ GHz) have shorter transmission ranges and giant masts are having little impact in densely populated areas where rollout efforts are being concentrated.

Accompanying small cell-style equipment will therefore need to be installed at roadside level, not only to overcome line-of-sight propagation challenges, caused by buildings, trees, vehicles etc, but to create the required urban canyons to enable the autonomous technologies needed to achieve aspirations for smart city utopia. The deployment of the underlying infrastructure and fibre optic cabling has been delayed for a number of reasons; ownership, operational busines models, funding etc. And the situation has been compounded by the pandemic and discussions surrounding the unsubstantiated safety concerns of certain 5G frequencies.

Huge investment is needed at carrier level

Infrastructure overhauls are needed at carrier level before desires for an autonomous world can be achieved. Not only that, MNOs need to change their existing business models and incorporate the relevant cloud infrastructure into their already built base stations and cell towers. The speed at which this is happening is being impacted by the upfront capex needed. There is also some scientism towards the “cloud carrier” concept as their 3G and 4G spectrum investments did not reap the financial rewards that were predicted. 5G handsets already in circulation are constantly switching between 4G and 5G networks, slowing down their overall performance and this “flip flopping” is not going to end any time soon. All these barriers beg the question about the real purpose 5G.

Private mobile networks are the current driving force of 5G

Until now, all mobile networks have been designed to meet the needs of people. 5G on the other hand has been designed with machines in mind. The average latency rate for 4G is around 50 milliseconds and this could potentially drop to 1milisecond with 5G. However, the average latency you can expect on existing 5G networks is around 10 milliseconds. Said network also promises delivery speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second. These differentiators are of little consequence to commercial services, but they allow machines to achieve near-seamless communication.

These high -performance/low-latency capabilities are driving the IoT revolution and the growing demand for private mobile networks in the meantime. However, the ability to acquire spectrum to operate said networks is limited to large enterprises and does not take into account middleprise requirements.

The state of play for mid-tier companies

The most logical strategy for middleprise companies wanting to leverage IoT in the meantime is to provide dedicated coverage for existing 3G and 4G services. 3G has been in use for over 20 years and 4G for around 10 years, yet many facilities still do not have adequate indoor coverage for these services, let alone 5G. There is also public safety comms aspect to think of which is also moving to be 4G-based for accessibility reasons.

4G is going to remain the predominant service for commercial cellular and M2M communications for the foreseeable future because of the cloud computing infrastructure and data backhaul challenges at base station/telco tower levels. As such it makes sense for facilities managers to continue to assure ubiquitous coverage for existing services and enhance them with 5G as rollouts accelerate and real-world use cases outside private mobile networks unfold.