The wireless industry buzz around 5G is a big deal.
5G is the next-generation wireless access technology. As such, it has significant implications for future wireless networks involving the carriers that operate them, the manufacturers that supply the active and passive gear to enable 5G, and those companies that build and maintain the infrastructure that supports it.
The Promise of 5G
Describing 5G and the significant advances it makes over current 4G technology is complex. Rather, it is better to appreciate what 5G capabilities will deliver, and not get too concerned with how it does it.
To wit, 5G promises an order of magnitude in performance over today’s 4G. That performance includes: download speeds in the gigabit per second (Gbps) range compared to less than 100 Mbps today; very low latency, or delay, something around one millisecond (or less); channel bandwidth of at least 100 megahertz; and, duplex operation.
5G networks will be used in consumer and commercial applications alike for ultra high-definition (HD) video, any-to-any device in the Internet of Things (IoT), connected vehicles and homes, telemedicine, virtual reality, remote control of industrial sites, and wearables.
All these developments are feasible but 5G commercial availability will take time. The timeline for widespread deployment is projected at 2020 and beyond.
That is not to say that testing has not already begun.
A number of announcements at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain hint at the power of 5G that is in the works. For instance, Nokia is collaborating with Verizon Wireless on a 5G field trial in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas delivering Ultra HD (4K) video. Nokia’s Bell Labs has demonstrated peak wireless data speeds of more than 30 Gbps to an end user, and more than one million simultaneous connections in a single cell. As well, Nokia launched a cloud-based radio access network (RAN) that supports multiple wireless access technologies from legacy 2G to today’s 4G LTE and carrier-grade Wi-Fi. It is 5G-ready, as well.
The CapEx Imperative
Two key factors drive wireless carrier capital expenditures: 1) the number of devices that connect to the network, and 2) the usage that each device generates.
In the United States, many of us use several wireless devices whether one or more smartphones, a tablet, and a laptop. Today, there are more wireless devices than people. When we factor in the projections for machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT sensors, then the number of devices grows exponentially into the billions.
Usage per device is growing at exponential rates, as well, mainly driven by data-rich mobile apps and streaming video. Individual data usage now averages well into the gigabits per month range.
When number of devices is multiplied by the usage per device, we quickly find that capacity demand on the network is also growing at exponential rates. (Exhibit 1)
For the carriers to keep up with demand, they must sustain a commensurate capital expenditure (capex) program to expand network capacity. This means increasing the density of their networks by locating radios and antennas closer to customers to deliver the Gbps speeds. Not doing so means falling behind the technology curve, and ultimately losing customers and revenues.
From a manufacturer’s perspective, Moore’s Law economics allows for development of compact radios that can be moved closer to the users away from macrocells and down to nodes, access, points and endpoints which leads to greater network densification. (Exhibit 2)
With the added capacity in a single connection, carriers can begin to realize a payoff by tapping into revenue flows that were previously unattainable, namely Ultra HD video on the high end, and M2M/IoT communications on the low end along with current voice, text and data.
Demand for Skilled Wireless Technicians
What does the emerging technology of the future mean to today’s tower service companies?
The deployment and maintenance of 5G technology will bring plenty of work above ground level (AGL) and even more so, close to or at ground level work.
The demand for skilled cell site installers and testers for all sizes of cell sites can only grow as the number of site deployments expands.
Every site requires radios, antennas and backhaul, much of which will be with fiber cable. Regardless of size, there is still the need to test for RF performance, optical transmission and passive intermodulation (PIM) interference.
Future tower climbers will be needed as much for their technical skills in optimizing RF and optical performance and data networking as for their climbing skills.
In the end, 5G is all about high-speed connectivity. Technical skills to install and test these new systems will be in demand regardless of the antenna height. The skill set is the same.