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5G - Small Cells 'Steal the Thunder' in 5G Era

Author: Balaji Thangavelu, Principal Consultant, Engineering Services


In this blog post, I have shared my thoughts on the significance of small cells in 5G, and how we need to gear up our innovation capabilities to address some unique challenges associated with small cell infrastructure deployment and RF planning.



What's in store for 5G in 2019....

 

If 2018 was the year of hype, marketing and planning for 5G, 2019 looks a bit more attractive and promising in terms of the actual deployment of the technology. And I believe the ecosystem is looking very strong and encouraging for this.

 

Mobile operators like AT&T, Verizon and Telstra have a lot planned for early 5G deployments. 5G Americas predicts that there will be 336,000 5G connections in North Americas by the end of 2019. That will be about 47% of global 5G connections at that point.

 

A pertinent question to ask here is whether all these planned deployments cater to the 5G use cases defined by IMT-2020 vision? The answer is no, because the mobile operators are not planning to go for full scale deployment using millimeter wave frequency spectrum, though speeds would definitely go up with 5G riding on sub 6GHz spectrum.

 

How far is the deployment of mmWave, which carries interesting IOT and high-bandwidth use cases, from reality...

 

Let us first understand what is the millimeter wave and small cells.

 

Millimeter wave:

·         High-frequency (>24Ghz frequency spectrum) millimeter waves will greatly increase wireless capacity and speeds for 5G networks. They are called mmWave for short.

·         They carry game changing 5G use cases, like 4K video, AR/VR, connected vehicle, Massive-IOT etc.

·         The propagation characteristics of millimeter wave bands are very different from those below 4GHz. Typically, only small distances can be achieved and the signals do not pass through walls and other objects in buildings.

 

Small cells:

·         Small cells are low power, short range wireless transmission systems (base stations) to cover a small geographical area or indoor / outdoor applications.

·         Small cells can be attached to street furniture, including lampposts and the sides of buildings.

·         Thousands of small cells can be used to cover a metro area of few square kilometers.

 

 

While there are several technical and business reasons on why operators may want to go slow on mmWave deployments, I believe the below are the primary reasons:

 

·         The obvious one is the release of spectrums through auction process which is determined by local conditions and the process followed by the governing bodies in the respective countries.

·         Then the ones associated with small cell infrastructure buildout - local permitting process, lengthy engagement and procurement exercises with local authorities, high fee structure on street furniture assets, human exposure to RF EMF

·         Mobile operators want to build massive small cell infrastructure at strategic locations and then scale out with learnings.

 

 

 

 

Small cell may be tiny but they are massive in numbers...

 

Clearly, mobile operators have a massive effort in front of them to build the small cell infrastructure. Add to this, what is called as fiberization, which is about fiber to the small cells enabling the front haul network infrastructure.

 

We can imagine this situation close to a green field deployment scenario. The traditional network planning, construction tools and processes may not be of much help given the scale, speed and agility of deployment requirements. I believe a fundamental shift will be required in the way we plan, construct and manage the radio access network infrastructure for 5G if we want to accelerate the deployments.

 

Innovation plays key role in getting there faster....

 

5G calls for innovative methods, tools and processes that would help accelerate the deployment of small cell and fiberization effort. I believe innovations like the ones listed below would create bigger impact in the journey of accelerating small cell deployments and service assurance. Some of these are just a reload from the past but others need new thinking to meet the ground realities.

·         Zero-touch provisioning and configuration for small cells with a PID scan using a mobile app

·         5G Use-case driven modeling and configurations

·         3D/GIS driven network modelling and simulation for RF planning aspects like Beamforming, line-of-site analysis

·         AR/VR enabled RF planning on 3D/GIS enabled drawings.

·         AR/VR enabled installations and support for remote technicians.

 

This plethora of innovative tools and enablers would require partnering between mobile operators, OEMs, RF planning/design vendors and system integrators. Infosys is actively building this partner ecosystem and developing solutions in our 5G microsite labs spread across global locations.


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