Chapter 1– The Status and Deployment of 5G Explained
To understand the 5G landscape, let’s first pause and examine some basics. What is required to deliver a top-level 5G rollout?
Deployment requires a dense cellular network to deliver high-speed, low-latency mobile service, and this kind of network requires time to build. Top-tier 5G relies on thousands of short-range small cell installations on utility poles, streetlights, buildings, and stand-alone structures to fill gaps in coverage.
Common Delivery Methods of 5G
Ultimately, a seamless and comprehensive 5G experience aims to blend low-band, mid-band, and, to the extent it’s practical, mmWave, or high-band. Here’s a quick look at the technologies:
- Low-band: This type is the easiest to provide and is already accessible across much of the US. Speeds are somewhat better than 4G, but not at the high level consumers may expect when they think of 5G.
- Mid-band: Many believe that accelerating mid-band coverage may ultimately be the key to consumer satisfaction with 5G. Mid-band provides much higher speeds than low-band and carries much farther than mmWave. Large providers are moving to expand it throughout their networks. The increased emphasis on mid-band, however, has led to some shifts in deployment strategy: some providers are giving macro towers priority over small cell in current infrastructure orders.
- High-band, or mmWave: This type requires a dense network of small cell equipment along with macro towers. This configuration provides the highest speeds but is more arduous to maintain because of the short-distance signals. Currently, it’s mostly limited to large cities.
5G Rollout Timeline: An Update
Though we are now a few years into the rollout, 5G remains in the initial stages. Let’s examine where we are now through the lens of access, subscribers, and speed:
- Access: A PwC report estimates that 80% of the country had access to some type of 5G service by July 2021. However, only a fraction of that total represented top-level mmWave, the fastest form of 5G (and the one that can best deliver the technology’s most-hyped benefits). For example, AT&T offers low-band 5G service in more than 14,000 cities and towns, but mmWave is in over 35 cities, including Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, and Jacksonville.
- Subscribers: Global technology intelligence firm ABI Research reports that by the end of 2020, there were 264 million global 5G subscribers. In November of 2021, they forecasted that the 5G market will continue to accelerate and reach 2.6 billion subscriptions by 2026. The research firms predict that mobile traffic will expand more than five times in 2026 compared to 2020, with more than half of that generated by 5G networks.
- Speed: What about the promise of increased download speeds? 5G has improved this: according to Android Authority, 5G is anywhere from 5x to 10x faster than current 4G networks, but for consumers, the reality is often speeds in the 50Mbps to 100Mbps. In the future, 5G could end up 20x faster than 4G, or even higher. But speeds are highly variable and often impacted by patchy coverage.
What’s Driving Demand
Consumer expectations for speed and reliability continue to be driving factors in the demand for 5G. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, household need for better broadband and more bandwidth has evolved beyond high-definition streaming video, sophisticated gaming, and other bandwidth-hungry applications. The past two years have increasingly demonstrated how essential fiber is to the entire fabric of our lives—from remote work to telehealth to distance learning. Experts forecast that these trends will only grow in the coming years.
In addition to consumer demand, there’s the issue of volume: simply put, internet traffic is increasing exponentially every year. According to a report from CommScope, global internet traffic doubles every two years.
While companies have already recognized that they must proactively prepare for the changes ahead by installing more fiber, the reality is that the amount of work that needs to be done is now exceeding the resources available to take it on. Adding to these complications, the pandemic also caused equipment shortages, which hindered installation of cellular equipment that would have helped make the transition smoother.
Rising to the Challenge: What’s Underway
Getting reliable 5G service into the hands of American consumers as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible is a huge undertaking, involving many players and hundreds of thousands of small cell installations.
Small cell is an essential part of 5G networks, especially for high-band service. Communications companies are counting on small cell deployment to support new technologies, eliminating coverage drops in dense urban settings, and providing seamless access to 5G’s ultra-fast speeds. By blanketing an area with small cell attachments on utility poles, streetlights, and other joint use assets, carriers are forming dense networks that can improve network capacity up to 1,600 times and improve network performance by 315 percent.
As the 5G rollout progresses in cities across the US, the number of applications for small cell attachments to utility and streetlight poles is growing. According to the Small Cell Forum, during 2022, deployments and upgrades will total 3.95 million for the year, representing 16% growth over the pace in 2021. This increase in attachments has certainly impacted the joint use community.
In the past, joint use management primarily involved telephone and power companies, as well as municipalities. Often, it was difficult to know exactly how many attachments were on each pole and whether the attachers were paying for the space they occupied. Historically, field asset inventories had been notoriously time-consuming, expensive, and not as important as revenue-generating projects. Furthermore, insufficient or inaccurate data only complicated the problem. Now, these companies are facing exploding interest from wireless carriers to attach small cell equipment to their infrastructure, but they are still facing the same issues that they had in the past.
Certainly, joint use challenges remain, but the introduction of new stakeholders and new technologies has ushered in a new era in which the need to be more strategic cannot wait any longer. Today, forward-thinking companies are adapting in order to become more competitive. Electric power providers, telecommunications companies, and broadband providers have found that consolidating joint use data within one asset management system can streamline the attachment processes, especially for small cell.
Fiber to the X
The extensive deployment of high performance fiber is crucial to successfully deploying small cell and thus the ability to deliver on the promise of 5G to consumers. Fiber-optic cable is built for speed and reliability. It's flexible, durable, water-resistant, and ideal for carrying multiple signals over long distances without degrading.
Before the first fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) connections around 2005, networks used fiber-optic cables to carry signals over long distances, but they relied on copper cables to handle the final leg of the journey, taking those signals into individual neighborhoods and to individual homes.
Since then, fiber to the x—which includes FTTH as well as fiber-to-the-node, fiber-to-the-neighborhood, fiber-to-the-curb, fiber-to-the-cabinet, and other degrees of extension—has become common, although still far from universal. Fiber to the x means extending fiber into the final mile before the signal reaches its destination, which is widely viewed as the best way to deliver high-bandwidth, low-latency service. For that reason, fiber is being deployed deeper and deeper into many networks.
Fiber is ideally suited to meet the growing demands placed on wireless services, such as faster upload speeds to accommodate the growing number of sensors connecting automobiles, home systems, and devices. While fiber is positioned to be dominant now, several other forms of backhaul are available as practical alternatives, including copper ethernet, mmWave, microwave, and satellite.
In locations where fiber is already in place, it is likely to be used, even if it must be upgraded. The cost of upgrades can be justified by the competitive advantage and potential profits for companies that can quickly and smoothly supply reliable 5G service.
By now you’ve no doubt heard of the Internet of Things (IoT). With the ability to access much faster speed for internet service and video uploads, the IoT will enable interconnection and automation throughout society, including home systems, health devices, autonomous vehicles, and public functions such as traffic, energy, and public safety.
Extensive fiber is crucial to enabling cutting-edge technologies such as the IoT and smart cities to develop and flourish—not to mention supporting the everyday exploding use of technology by the ordinary consumer.
Imagine the full potential of smart cities: sensors will perform a multitude of functions that increase efficiency, save money, and improve public safety. For example, here are just a few of the advancements that the IoT can provide:
- Smart lighting: Sensors in smart cities will automatically dim public lights on empty streets and turn them back on when a person or vehicle appears.
- Improved traffic flow: To reduce congestion, traffic lights will be able to respond to actual traffic with sensors.
- Better public safety: Sensors can measure a number of public safety indicators. For instance, gunshot detectors will lead to quicker, more informed police response (possibly even identifying the type of firearm used). Severe weather warnings will improve, and sensors will communicate which streets to avoid during flash floods.
- Smart power: Power grids are critical to health and safety. With sensors monitoring power output, power outages will be detected and relayed immediately, helping responders get essential services restored sooner.
The deployment of small cell is key to this future reality. But progress must take place consistently and for all consumers, which brings us to the next point: What can be done to encourage closing the digital divide?