28 April 2020
Initial deployments of 5G will be focused around hotspots and not on a broad scale. For example, we will see 5G in smart factories, dense urban areas, campuses and stadia.
But 5G’s transformative potential will only be realised if it provides a seamless user experience both and indoors and out. Currently, it is estimated that 80% of total data consumption occurs in buildings - from shopping centres and offices to campuses and stadia. Traditionally, operators have concentrated on outdoor coverage and relied on their radio access networks (RANs) to reach indoor areas (with the exception of high profile buildings or corporate clients). But 5G changes all of this and makes delivering seamless indoor/outdoor coverage and capacity a major challenge. This is because high frequency, millimetre wavelength signals find it more difficult to penetrate building materials such as concrete, steel frames, glass, insulation and wood. This leads to increased loss and weak indoor coverage or no coverage at all, and while people in tall buildings may get a good view, they may not have network visibility. Even if operators rely on handover to Wi-Fi, these radio access technologies need to be designed in coordination as part of a wider flexible network architecture.
Many operators are only just waking up to the indoor/outdoor challenge and as 5G deployments accelerate, there is growing demand a new HetNet-based approach, with complex interoperation between macrocell, small cell, DAS (Distributed Antenna System) and Wi-Fi. The use of small cells or DAS makes a compelling business case based on increasing throughput, agility, affordability of deployment, cheaper maintenance costs and superior RF power levels. The large capacity of DAS is well suited to venues such as stadiums and it is much less expensive to deploy a DAS for in-building coverage than to install hundreds of small cells. DAS tends to involve higher up-front costs with heavier design work than small cells in low-density applications.
The challenge is determining where the tipping point is. However, whether it is a small cell or DAS system, there is a need for a new generation of indoor/outdoor network design and optimisation tools, capable of dealing with the complexities of planning and deploying densified indoor and urban multilayer and multi-technology networks. Accurate 3D modelling with new data analysis and complex algorithms are needed to perform cross-system design and simulation of coverage, traffic steering and handover; enabling network optimisation and preventing small cells from being installed in inappropriate locations, for example. Optimising AP location, antenna type, power and channel assignment before anything has been installed reduces time and cost. To deliver on the 5G promise, operators need to provide the same high-quality user experience regardless of location. If the outside in approach does not work, it is time to take a fresh look from the inside out.
By Per Lindberg, CEO at Ranplan Wireless