Many mobile network operators (MNOs) are currently getting ready to deploy 5G. Some have already trialled [] and plan to launch 5G in 2019 or soon after [,]. This is possible since the ecosystem is becoming available to deploy 5G.
However, deployment of 5G doesn’t come without challenges. For instance, at site level, if 2G, 3G or 4G is already deployed, deploying additional 5G carriers on the same site could potentially exceed the acceptable non-ionizing radiation limits defined by the ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection). These restrictions will limit the transmitted power and the flexibility in terms of the number of technologies or spectrum bands that can be deployed on a site. Shared sites will be even more challenging. The planning permissions and access agreements have to be planned well in advance. Since 5G antennas are likely to be heavier than 4G antennas, if the 5G antennas are deployed on an existing site with 2G/3G/4G antennas, structural assessment is necessary to ensure the extra weight can be accommodated on the existing infrastructure or on the roof tops.
Similar to 4G, initially 5G is expected to be deployed to meet the capacity demand to serve the enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) use case. For instance, in our study on future mobile connectivity services likely to emerge in Ireland we carried out in partnership with Oxera, we identified the top three use cases and found that eMBB will drive the initial 5G deployments. In fact 5G rollout will be likely to be expanded gradually, depending on the business case from the other use cases or the regulatory requirements. Initial deployment will almost certainly be dependent on the existing 4G core networks for some time which are supported by the non-stand-alone (NSA) mode standardised within 3GPP Release 15. Further, even if 5G is deployed at the base stations, the full benefits of 5G are possible only if the terminal penetration is sufficient.
So, what are the key considerations on 5G network strategy? Below are some thoughts for a typical MNO. I’ve divided them into four categories – Commercial, spectrum, technology and topology.
- Prioritise use cases: Identification and prioritisation of the right use cases in line with the MNO’s long-term strategy (i.e. maximise the revenue) is important as this could vary depending on the MNOs strengths and weaknesses. See an example work we carried out for the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). In this study, Real Wireless analysed the market for forthcoming 5G services – developing the key use cases that would drive early 5G take up and the implications for infrastructure requirements. We estimated likely infrastructure costs that would need to be incurred to support each of the key use cases that we identified.
- Evaluate the 5G auction business case and acquire new 5G spectrum: For instance, in the latest Ofcom consultation on 700 MHz, 3.6-3.8 GHz bands Ofcom has already mentioned some proposed obligations. Whilst acquiring 5G spectrum is important as these bands are likely to be harmonised across the region for 5G, it is also essential to understand the cost of deployment to meet these coverage obligations as this varies from country to country. In Our study for ComReg we have also estimated the likely cost of expanding coverage in Ireland by considering the unique characteristics of Ireland.
- Review re-farming strategy: Maintaining legacy technology is expensive. To reduce OpEx and minimise the expenditure on the legacy technologies, it is essential to identify the correct re-farming strategy. For instance, re-farming GSM 900 and UMTS 2100 to deploy LTE is something MNOs are already carrying out since these two bands have the highest terminal penetration. This will provide immediate benefits in the network.
- Understand the technology with trials: The initial phase of 5G is likely to be deployed with the Non-Stand-Alone (NSA) mode, standardised the within 3GPP Release 15, which is a conglomerate of features and architecture options covering both LTE and New Radio (NR) in the as Radio Access Network (RAN) RATs. Technology trials can provide good technology insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the new technology works and importantly how it can coexist with legacy technologies. Smooth integration of any new technology is important to minimise the disruptions to the customers served by the existing commercial network.
- Prepare for network densification: Radio site densification is one potential option to meet the increasing demand for eMBB service. In addition, 5G networks will likely be virtualised and make use of the edge cloud sites for many reasons e.g. to support services with tight delay requirements. High capacity fronthaul connections will be required to provide the connectivity between radio sites and edge cloud sites. Dimensioning the radio sites, edge cloud sites and the transport network will play an important role in creating a successful service delivery platform. In 5G NORMA, a major European project under the Horizon 2020 framework, we dimensioned radio sites, edge cloud sites and the transport network to carry out a techno-economic assessment of a virtualised, flexible 5G network. The work continuing with the follow on project, 5G MONARCH
Considerations for all these four components is essential when MNOs formulate their 5G network strategy. However, each MNO has their own strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, the tricky question is to understand the scale of the efforts and the investments necessary in each category. This is where our experience and business and systems analysis tools can inform and support decisions.