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5G requires a radical rethink of sites and cables, not just radio

Wireless Watch will be taking its annual summer break on July 31 and August 7, so the next issue will be published on Monday August 14. We wish all our subscribers a happy summer holiday.

It is clear that, for 5G to deliver commercially, it will need to support many types of services, looking well beyond mobile broadband and into a wide range of vertical markets and machine-to-machine applications. That means the network will have to support many different kinds of communication behavior, from ultra-low latency to massive device density, and from very high reliability/security to very low energy consumption. All these characteristics will be important to elements of the 5G model, but they will not just need to be supported in the radio standards and devices. They will also have a profound impact on the wider network and IT architecture, and therefore on the physical assets which service providers need to access in order to roll out cost-effective, resource-flexible and energy-efficient networks.

There will be a far larger number of cell sites and these will be far more varied than in current networks, where a tower-mounted macrocell and a pole-mounted microcell are not conceptually very different. Some of the trends have started already in LTE, especially because carriers are starting to embark on densification of their networks in areas of high usage. That is seeing them planning to deploy large numbers of small cells – if the site and backhaul issues can be effectively addressed. Small cells have introduced new expectations in terms of cost, power and simple deployment, but these expectations have not yet been fully met – yet it will be completely impractical to roll out thousands of small cells if they cannot be quickly, cheaply and repeatably installed and backhauled, and if their management and operations cannot then be highly automated.

Progress is already being made, though too slowly for many operators, as seen in the US, where the FCC’s proposed rules to simplify site approvals are being resisted by local governments. But to achieve the 5G vision of entirely ubiquitous wireless, supporting huge numbers of connections whatever their network requirements, there will need to be far more radical change.

This will not just be about large numbers of cells, but about new architectures which merge communications with IT and turn the network into a distributed cloud. That will be essential to support and deliver the huge variety of services which are foreseen for 5G, and will see operators investing in Cloud-RAN technologies and in edge computing – both of which will further change the way physical sites and fiber need to be deployed.

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