Green shoots emerging for 5G outdoor wireless connectivity 

Jan. 8, 2024
A host of new measures to reduce costs at 5G sites and the emergence of new business use cases will be the engines that will drive 5G momentum throughout 2024.

By Mike Wolfe, CTO, Outdoor Wireless Networks, CommScope 

There’s no getting around the fact that the recent global economic slowdown has chilled 5G commitments and rollouts. The timing and scope of several unforeseen events have placed hurdle after hurdle in the way of ambitious 5G deployment plans—first, the global pandemic; then the shutdowns that snarled supply chains; then acute inflationary pressures; then concerns in the United States over possible interference with aircraft radar systems; then a spike in energy costs triggered in part by war in Ukraine.  

5G requires significant capital to deploy and considerable power consumption to operate. In an average world economy, these costs can be recouped by increased performance premiums from subscribers—but as we all know, this is not an average economy and subscribers are facing their cost-reduction pressures, too. 

The result is a steady cadence of stories describing delayed 5G rollouts and scaled-back plans from mobile network operators. But I’m not here to dwell on the downsides we’re all familiar with—because what I see in the year ahead for 5G gives me reason for great optimism. 

5G is delayed but not derailed 

Two significant developments already in motion (and are likely to gain momentum in 2024) are the cost-reducing simplification of 5G sites and the emergence of new, game-changing business use cases that will leverage the unique capabilities available from 5G networks.  

Together, these two factors are likely to bring new energy and enthusiasm to the technology that will remain the foundation of wireless connectivity for at least the next ten—or even twenty—years. For that reason, I think this coming year will confirm that 5G may be delayed but is by no means derailed. 

Simplification and cost reduction 

The first phases of 5G deployments supported non-standalone (NSA) networks that could leverage existing LTE networks for mobility and signaling, leveraging the benefits of accelerated rollouts this approach provided. But this also increased the complexity involved in site design, and in wireless networks, “complexity” is just another term for “cost.”  

The overlaid NSA network architecture forced compromises that kept the technology from living up to the considerable hype that surrounded its debut. In the future, to truly streamline and simplify network architecture, MNOs can’t rely on the designs of earlier network technologies any longer—and thanks to several recent innovations in the industry, they won’t have to. Some of these complexity- and cost-reducing measures include: 

New antenna designs combine active and passive RF technologies in a streamlined, turnkey form factor. Such antennas reduce the bulk and weight of tower-top deployments and increase MNOs’ network design flexibility because both 5G and LTE networks can operate side-by-side with little or no performance hit. These integrated designs also reduce wind loading on tower tops, potentially eliminating the need for costly structural upgrades to support the additional 5G components and consequently reducing upgrade costs by tens of thousands per site. 

Right-sizing 5G buildouts can better balance cost against revenue when MNOs switch from the most expensive, highest performing 64T64R M-MIMO solutions to more economical 32T32R M-MIMO on macro sites, which reduces deployment cost without compromising 5G services as currently demanded. It’s also possible to take these savings further with an optimized 8T8R passive solution as a serviceable alternative to M-MIMO used in 64T64R and 32T32R at the macro level and 16T16R used in small cell deployments.  

Transitioning the 5G network from an NSA architecture to a standalone (SA) architecture increases as the penetration of 5G devices and high-value use cases emerge. This enables the network to progress towards a cloud-native implementation, reducing equipment costs on each site, and it also allows AI-based improvements in network power consumption and service delivery (e.g., through the implementation of network slicing). 

Together, these new and emerging improvements are aimed directly at 5G deployment cost challenges to make it easier for MNOs to begin, resume, or accelerate their rollouts.  

Of course, even a smarter, more modest CapEx investment isn’t justified if the market won’t bear the cost of adopting the new capabilities. Fortunately, the second significant factor coming to the fore in 2024 could also help solve that side of the equation. 

New 5G business use cases—private networks 

The unique performance attributes of 5G are many—its incredible speed, vast capacity and ultra-low latency, for starters. Yet, in some ways, it seems 5G performance has managed to outrun some of the demand it fills; 1 ms latency is an incredible specification, but those applications where it’s genuinely needed are very few today. There’s no doubt that high performance drives high-demand applications, and it will take some time for those applications to reach the market. 

Still, in the here and now, there are new business use cases where 5G is preferable and essential as a technology platform—even if they don’t require 1 ms latency. Consider, for instance, rising interest in private wireless networks in enterprises, large public venues, travel hubs and other prominent indoor, outdoor and combined indoor/outdoor locations with high levels of network traffic. 

5G deployments gain their capacity and throughput advantages over LTE by using a combination of higher frequency spectrum and more capable radios (M-MIMO). It’s not by accident that the first 5G installations have been directed at more urban environments where the network most effectively serves high traffic density. Yet, due to its link budget constraints, 5G has trouble connecting from outdoor macro sites to subscribers who are located indoors, where most traffic originates. Indoor small cell and DAS solutions can overcome this, backhauling indoor traffic to the core network, but another kind of discrete 5G network has also emerged—the private 5G network. 

With an in-house 5G network, the enterprise (airport, hospital, or stadium) can provide 5G connectivity with security and privacy beyond ordinary Wi-Fi®. Users can take advantage of 5G speed and capacity—indoors, where it’s otherwise difficult to guarantee—while leveraging the security of end-to-end encryption for their voice, email, text and online activities on their connected devices.  

The security advantage of private 5G networks will only improve in the years ahead. Looking beyond 2024, the anticipated arrival of quantum-safe cryptography (QSC)—perhaps five or ten years away—stands to elevate the encryption strength immeasurably while rendering current encryption methods obsolete. For this reason, the GSMA formed the Quantum Safe Telecom Network Task Force last year, intending to establish a robust regulatory standard for the use of such encryption in the future.  

Private 5G networks stand to become one of the most exciting new business use cases for 5G, and the market is still in its infancy. 2024 will undoubtedly yield significant interest and investment growth in this secure, high-performance technology. 

A brighter year ahead for 5G 

An unlikely combination of global economic and political turmoil may have caused 5G rollouts to slow, but it cannot be said that they have stopped. The technology has too much promise and too many advantages to be kept down for long. Bringing these networks into the market will be helped this year by cost-reducing simplifications in site architecture and emerging interest in private 5G networks.  

As the foundation for wireless networks for at least the next decade as 6G development continues, it simply doesn’t make sense to assume the current headwinds will keep 5G from its full potential much longer. Instead, those shifting winds are likely to start filling our sails in 2024, leading us to new destinations that are only now coming into focus. 

 

Mike Wolfe is the CTO of outdoor wireless networks for CommScope.

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