The development of telecom networks is often seen as a continuous progression of generations, with trials and deployments of the latest generation – 5G – taking place today in hundreds of cities across the globe.
To provide 5G services on a large scale, telecom providers are both upgrading traditional cell towers and further developing new cell sites to accommodate heightened user demand and deliver on the anticipated speed benefits promised at the inception of the 5th generation. In fact, it is anticipated that the total number of deployments of small cells in North America alone will reach ~800,000 by 2025, 50 percent more than the number of small cells deployed in 2020.
However, with 5G not expected to be widely available until at least 2024, many customers will continue to rely on 4G technology and the cell tower infrastructure that enables it during the buildout and transition. This confluence of upgrading existing infrastructure while deploying new infrastructure to successfully build and scale for 5G networks will require telecom operators to reassess their approaches to life cycle services. At this critical stage in the 5G deployment, implementing a holistic approach to services – including engineering, furnishing and installation (EF&I) – will help enhance safe operation, optimize asset performance, increase uptime and boost return on 5G infrastructure investments.
Telecom networks have a history of building upon preceding networks’ capabilities and infrastructures. Wireless network generations initially kicked off by using analog technology for 1G. It evolved into 2G digital networks with the adoption of IP – a more popular datacom protocol – in telecom networks. When 3G and 4G were deployed in the 2000’s, they used these pre-existing technologies to broadcast signals over wide radii, allowing each generation to incrementally increase data speeds from 64 kbps (2G) to 8 mbps (3G) to 50 mbps (4G).
Similarly, early deployments of 5G are also using existing 4G network infrastructures, building software-upgradable versions of their cell tower equipment that can be easily transitioned from 4G LTE to 5G non-standalone (NSA) infrastructures at first. Under the 5G NSA model, 5G radio networks will reduce latency and support 4G infrastructures already in place, allowing operators to transition seamlessly into 5G SA (standalone) infrastructures.
5G, however, is unlike any telecom network generation before it – 5G’s low latency, faster speeds and extended capacity is made possible because it operates on higher frequency bands compared to previous generations. The shorter wavelength it uses means 5G can transmit more information in less time, but in much shorter ranges and without the ability to penetrate through infrastructure such as buildings. As a result, there now needs to be a significant buildout of small cells and beamforming repeaters – installed virtually everywhere – to deliver a reliable 5G signal at the ultrafast speeds this next generation promises.
Although small cell deployment is well underway, the transition from 4G to 5G will be incremental. Since it is predicted that 4G LTE will coexist with the 5G core for at least the next 10 years, not only will customers continue to rely on existing 4G networks for the foreseeable future, but small cells also are poised to rely on that technology.
Ensuring that both existing and newly deployed cell sites will stand the test of time and provide maximum value depends on investments made today into the infrastructures and service protocols that will enable the future of 5G.
For existing macro cell sites, such an approach will involve prioritizing regular servicing and updates so that they can be reused for telecom generations to come. Operators can take the initial steps by scheduling regular inspections and structural assessments, such as comprehensive reviews of system evaluations and alarm histories per original equipment manager (OEM) recommendations. From there, operators can implement infrastructure upgrades, including OEM-recommended firmware upgrades, as well as inspections and preventative maintenance on all critical components to help boost performance and maximize infrastructure lifespans.
For new small cell sites, a holistic, end-to-end life cycle services approach can be implemented even before the site is developed. During the pre-development phase, detailed site audits can provide operators with a complete roadmap of deployment recommendations. From there, completing periodic maintenance during installation, provisioning, network integration, testing and commissioning can extend the infrastructure’s lifespan, helping to ensuring service delivery is never interrupted from pre-launch to launch to commercial operation.
Because energy consumption by the equipment powering 5G infrastructure is much higher than that of 4G, discernible maintenance status, ongoing technical support, regular repairs and a well-trained team of field engineers will be essential to assist operators as they deploy and maintain their 5G infrastructures.
Properly addressing 5G infrastructure needs with life cycle services goes beyond extending the infrastructure’s life to fueling the future of the G’s as a whole. By streamlining and simplifying life cycle services, operators can reduce deployment complexity and help improve productivity for network generations to come.
Telecom operators don’t have to assume the entire life cycle services lift by themselves, however. Integrating automation and digitization can help make 5G infrastructure smarter to allow operators to generate, collect and analyze valuable operational data related to their infrastructure. Site monitoring controllers and smart power technologies, for example, can send site information directly back to the network operating center with minimal-to-no human intervention. This, in turn, will allow operators to enable prescriptive inferences for preventative maintenance, automating manual tasks associated with daily 4G operations so they can focus on deploying 5G faster.
Today’s technological innovation is transforming how humans communicate and stay connected, making this an interesting time for telecom providers across the globe. After all, operators must continue improving operations for the 4G technology of our past and present, while also investing in the 5G infrastructure of our future. Emphasizing a holistic, end-to-end life cycle services approach will help ensure that 4G and 5G can continue serving the world for years and further scale for future network generations.
Raj Radjassamy is the 5G and wireless segment leader for ABB Power Conversion.