Diverse 5G spectrum holdings fuel mix of 5G infrastructure: Special Report

U.S. carriers have all signaled they’re moving ahead with 5G rollouts, with new spectrum coming online and differing deployment models that require a variety of infrastructure solutions.  

5G infrastructure will be discussed on Monday, July 20, during FierceWireless 5G Blitz Week virtual event, with a session titled "Rolling Out 5G Infrastructure."

Carriers continuing to deploy 5G in different frequency bands is one of the primary reasons the coming wave of 5G rollouts will be across the board in terms of macro towers, rooftop sites, and small cells, according to Mark Reudink, VP of Product Development at Crown Castle.

Lower bands for 5G coverage like those already being deployed by T-Mobile (600 MHz) and AT&T (850 MHz) are better suited for towers. Verizon has focused on millimeter wave using 28 GHz, but plans to roll out 5G with low-band with the help of dynamic spectrum sharing technology.  

U.S. operators also have accumulated large amounts of millimeter wave spectrum, and are waiting to get their hands on key mid-band at auction. T-Mobile recently started initial deployments of 2.5 GHz spectrum.

RELATED: AT&T adds 5G to 28 new markets, expands DSS deployment

“And then there’s a huge appetite, especially in light of recent events, for fixed wireless access,” Reudink said, with FWA deployed via small cells. Continued mmWave deployments are primarily on small cells, though Reudink said Crown Castle is seeing some on towers as well.

Verizon last month expanded 5G Home Internet, its fixed wireless service using 28 GHz spectrum, to a sixth market and plans to reach 10 cities this year. Down the line, the carrier aims to cover 30 million households. T-Mobile pledged to offer in-home fixed wireless service to about 9.5 million households by 2024, but is still in pilot phases.

The latest Ericsson Mobility Report forecasts nearly 160 million FWA connections by the end of 2025, up from an estimated 51 million in 2019. Since more than one person usually lives at home, the forecast figure represents around 570 million individuals having access to a wireless broadband connection.  

Kashif Hussain, director of solutions marketing at Viavi Solutions, said operators’ varying spectrum assets “have a ripple effect on the whole overall network infrastructure.” For example, "how is your fronthaul going to be upgraded or evolve? Now you need a lot of fibers going to the radios, you need some sort of multiplexed fiber solution.”

RELATED: T-Mobile turns on 5G ‘layer cake’ in NYC with 2.5 GHz integration

He too is seeing customers tap infrastructure and technologies across the board depending on the type of spectrum they have, and what their use-case and business case is.

One option for indoor coverage at public places like airports, sports and entertainment, shopping and hospitality venues is neutral-host cellular distributed antenna systems (DAS). Rachel Rea, senior director of Carrier Services at Boingo, said the company – one of the largest indoor DAS providers in the U.S. – continues to see the need for indoor solutions, noting 80% of mobile data is consumed inside today.

As a neutral-host provider, Boingo helps venues serve visitors that likely have different wireless providers, who are all using different wireless spectrum.

“Now with 5G, the need for DAS and dense networks is amplified,” Rea said, adding its verticals will continue to grow and Boingo will migrate into new industries like manufacturing.

With the variety of low-, mid- and mmWave 5G deployments, as a neutral-host Boingo takes the approach to ensure carriers and their spectrum bands can be uniquely designed and deployed in a variety of locations.

One of the best things about having a neutral-host partner, according to Rea, is smart decisions are made that are favorable to both the venue and the carriers.

Mid-band coming online

Coveted mid-band spectrum is still currently scarce in the U.S. for most carriers, but two auctions are slated for this year.

T-Mobile is the only one rolling out mid-band with its 2.5 GHz, acquired through the Sprint merger, now activated in a handful of markets. Hussain is seeing no more than 20 MHz in the initial deployments, which he said is not that significant in terms of driving gigabits of throughput for the enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) use case. However, T-Mobile has plenty more to deploy.

This month the FCC is auctioning Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in the shared 3.5 GHz CBRS band, offering 70 MHz. A variety of players are interested, with more than 270 qualified applicants. The highly anticipated C-band auction starts December 8, with 280 MHz of spectrum up for grabs.  

Mike Wolfe, VP of network engineering for Wireless at CommScope, is excited for the significant opportunities C-band brings.

RELATED: Verizon files to conduct C-band tests

“From a North America perspective, the C-band spectrum coming available is going to a major opportunity that’s going to take us through a number of years,” Wolfe said. “It’s going to become pretty much a macro overlay for 5G, similar to what’s being done in Europe with the 3.5 GHz band.”

Crown Castle’s Reudink said C-band deployments will encompass tower, rooftop, and small cells. In terms of 3.5 GHz in the U.S., Crown Castle sees CBRS as geared toward high-capacity needs delivered via small cells.

“Small cells [for C-band] may lag a little behind what we see on the towers,” Reudink said, because of more powerful transmission available from the C-band than around CBRS. “That’s when you could start with the coverage play primarily using tower assets and then fill that in when you have more capacity needs with the small cells.”

RELATED: Verizon’s CBRS 3.5 GHz deployments on the rise – RootMetrics

When it comes to CBRS and C-band, there are design considerations for DAS providers, according to Rea. Once new spectrum is auctioned, Boingo needs to change the way it designs and deploys networks to meet the new requirements and venue specifications.

A wireless band at 3-6 GHz isn’t going to penetrate walls the same way 600 or 800 MHz frequency will, she noted, and the approach is different based on the frequencies and the type of venue - down to what kind of walls it has.

“In terms of DAS, 5G will underscore the need for neutral-host, not just as a technology but as a business model,” Rea said. “Venues don’t want 3-4-5 layers to a network, they want one unified system that brings everything under one managed networks.”

Small cells need power 

While mid-band is a major focus these days, U.S. carriers still have significant mmWave holdings, which require dense deployments.   

The Small Cell Forum expects global small cell deployments and upgrades to reach 6.3 million per year by the end of 2026, at compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13% from 2019.

Cumulatively, that will reach 38.3 million (and up to 49 million in a best-case scenario) by the end of the forecast, with 5G small cells overtaking 4G in early 2024.

RELATED: SCF: 68% of small cells will be enterprise by 2026

Trying to deploy dense coverage with mmWave is a known challenge and Viavi’s Hussain said from a scale perspective, investment needs to be understood well, and considers things like backhaul and power requirements as continued challenges.  

Commscope’s Wolfe said access to fiber and getting power to poles is a pain point they’ve seen in the small cell deployment space.  

“We’ve seen that some of the power consumption levels on small cells has increased to where now it’s typically 1 kilowatt or more worth of power consumption per pole,” Wolfe said. “So, the power requirements continue to escalate as the operators have started to add a lot more 5G capabilities to those small cells, in addition to 4G.”

Wolfe believes 5G is more energy efficient on a per bit basis, but looking at site power consumption, he thinks “5G is going to drive power levels up just because of the cost of achieving that capacity.”

Commscope has also been talking with customers about new solutions with distributed power technology that avoids a per-pole AC power connection. Getting power to poles from the utilities can sometimes take between 6-12 weeks per pole, according to Wolfe. Instead, customers could power a cluster of sites from a central node, saving costs and time. 

RELATED: Verizon pledges 5x more small cells in 2020

It’s still a consideration but Crown Castle doesn’t see any roadblocks as far as power consumption of 5G versus 4G equipment.

“All of the manufacturers certainly are working to make the 5G gear more efficient and we’re seeing some of that efficiently through the architectures that are being deployed,” Reudink said.

In looking toward sustainability, as well as expediting 5G network deployments, Crown Castle is also focused on talking with carrier customers about its ability to provide shared wireless infrastructure where they're colocated. This reduces the overall amount of towers, small cells, fiber lines and so on. 

One thing is certain, carriers will continue to tap whatever spectrum resources they can for 5G and that points to infrastructure across the board.

“All of the assets [tower, rooftop, small cells], and then the fiber connectivity between those as well, are a big part of the component as we roll out 5G,” Reudink said.