What’s going to stop the 5G rollout?

Alistair Elliott of Pod Group

Although 5G has many potential benefits, there are some barriers that will inhibit these services, particularly outside the private settings on a public network.

High set-up costs

To provide 5G services, of course, you need a network, says Pod Group’s Alistair Elliott. Unless an operator has deep pockets and they’re happy to wait for customers to come to their network, they are going to gradually roll out 5G services as demand dictates.

As with 4G, operators are likely to focus on getting the most return on their investment. They’ll do this by targeting higher density usage areas like cities.

High frequency millimetre waves

To achieve the headline speed figures for 5G at scale, operators will use the mmWave spectrum, which is somewhere between 24 and 100Ghz. This spectrum will provide mobile operators with more capacity to offer higher throughput and low latency capabilities.

High frequency mmW cannot travel long distances and are affected by trees, buildings, and other obstacles, meaning additional cell sites will be required to achieve coverage. The need for additional cell sites will slow down 5G’s implementation.

Patchy coverage

In the short term, 5G services will be making use of lower frequency spectrum in the range 600Mhz – 3Ghz. This will include re-farmed existing spectrum from 3G/4G services and spectrum from national regulators’ auctions.

Across Europe, three main spectrum bands have been specified for 5G use. The bands each bring different properties. By using a combination of these bands, the hope is that 5G can provide both high speeds (in certain areas) and consistent coverage (although it may be slower in certain places).

  • Sub 1GHz – the ‘coverage layer’ – will provide wide area and deep indoor coverage. In Europe, it is the 700MHz band.
  • 1GHz-6GHz – the ‘coverage and capacity layer’ – will use C-band spectrum around 3.5GHz.
  • Above 6GHz – the ‘super data layer’ – delivers high data rates by using higher frequency mmWave spectrum.

While using a combination of bands should make it easier for operators in Europe to roll out 5G more quickly and cost effectively, it’s likely this will lead to patchy coverage, which may make 5G less attractive and therefore slow the uptake.

US operators have a bigger geographical challenge and are deploying 5G services at lower frequencies. T-Mobile, in particular, wants to utilise its large investment in 600 MHz spectrum which it uses currently for its LTE services. Overall, while the USA is pushing forward with a 5G rollout, it is not a coordinated method but rather a set of ad hoc commercial manoeuvres.

This patchy coverage and differences in speed are likely to slow down the mass adoption of 5G.

It is, therefore, unlikely that we are going to see full deployment at scale in rural settings due to the infrastructure costs. In the short term, we will see 5G being deployed on private networks and in specific geographic areas (such as central business districts or campus workspaces).

The reality is for the next few years we are going to see patchy 5G coverage, with a blend of inner-city high-density coverage and more limited rural coverage. As it stands today, the coverage is too patchy and too expensive to encourage widespread uptake.

I anticipate that 5G is going to need to comprise low (sub 3Ghz), mid, and high frequencies to provide coverage. I expect that in the future a device will use dual connectivity. The lower frequency will be used as the control channel to switch in and out of high-frequency services.

Network sharing is vitally important if we are to deploy 5G networks on a commercial scale. We already have coverage blackspots with existing cellular services, the need for 5G base stations is going to be more challenging. Combining resources between operators makes logical sense or between operators and third parties offering private or neutral host networks.

Eventually, we will see a combination of 5G mmWave outdoor coverage in inner cities, combined with indoor coverage for large venues. Whether we will see any of the more ambitious projects anytime soon remains to be seen.

The author is Alistair Elliott, CEO Solutions, Pod Group

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