$1.3 trillion will be spent on mobile networks across all technology generations in the next five years according to the GSMA; a huge 75 per cent of this will be investment in 5G. And yet, despite the considerable capital expenditure (CapEx) that operators are prepared to allocate to their 5G networks, the GSMA’s research shows that 5G will arrive at a shuffle, not a sprint. Why? Well, given the lessons learned from previous 4G roll outs, a wide-scale implementation such as this always introduces new hurdles to overcome.

When it comes to 5G infrastructure, introducing something new onto the table is essential. Investing in innovation, operators work with RF designers that are capable of pre-emptive problem solving. This allows them to head off the potential stumbling blocks that they face around 5G, to ensure its turnout as an asset, rather than an investment black hole. 

The challenges 

The biggest challenge to overcome, from an infrastructure perspective, can be split into three areas: cell site constraints, delivering 5G in cities, and securing return on investment (ROI). 

Firstly, site constraints. Cell sites are finite, and 4G systems will be a critical part of operator business models for the foreseeable future. 5G needs to deliver on its high capacity promises, but simply expanding the infrastructure footprint isn’t an option. 

Secondly, cities are undoubtedly one of the areas where 5G use cases show the most promise. However, delivering the level of penetration needed to support this is a hurdle to overcome.

Finally, there is the bottom line. This explains the slow and steady approach to CapEx, as 5G investments need to show ROI, so that operators continue to show keenness to ‘invest and invest right’. 

The base station space race

Site constraints are nothing new, but they are a significant headache for operators as they look to 5G. Sites are already overcrowded, and procuring new sites is a significant logistical and financial headache, if indeed possible at all. 

As a typical site already supports many different antennas and bands for a variety of purposes and operators, trying to add new ones also creates a long, expensive and complicated negotiation process with site owners. The answer, then, is to find a way of deploying 5G (or LTE-A and 5G-ready) active antennas, with antenna arrays supporting mMIMO technologies, including beamforming, onto existing sites as efficiently as possible. 

5G by stealth 

This is where innovation, and 5G by stealth, comes into play. Innovation is critical to making equipment work harder. For example, an antenna itself looks exactly the same, but the functionality is significantly enhanced. Take an Active Passive Antenna: it maintains the form factor of typical passive base station antennas, but by integrating active components, it is able to support 4G and 5G networks. This approach allows innovation without compromise, as it marries technical performance whilst circumventing one of the biggest challenges they face around 5G. 

Design is the key to inner city coverage 

This level of design is one of the more essential aspects of 5G and form factor has never been more important. As we move away from the base station delivering coverage in dense urban areas, the challenges ultimately remain the same. Deliver new 5G technology without significantly increasing the infrastructure needed to power it; however, the approach differs slightly. 

The design of equipment is more critical than ever before, and operators need to work with OEMs and RF specialists that are capable of designing this ‘transparent’ infrastructure. This means equipment that is truly capable of blending into the background through concealment or integrating with existing structures such as street furniture. Be it wireless backhaul, distributed antenna systems and RF wideband or MIMO ready radiating cable systems that can support in-building and in-tunnel connectivity – the infrastructure needs to provide capacity without creating an eyesore. 

Future proofing 5G 

Once the design elements have been tackled, operators then must focus on a sustainable roll out of 5G that guarantees ROI. The slower approach to investment, as indicated by the GSMA, will certainly help operators as they look to build networks to last. But in many cases, taking a modular approach can offer the future proofing operators are looking for. 

Active Passive Antennas are a perfect example. They combine the passive components needed for legacy frequency transmissions with the active components needed for 3.5 GHz mMIMO transmissions in 5G networks, in a single antenna. It minimises the space and visual impact and allows operators to achieve more, with less equipment. Not only this, but they allow a staggered approach to roll out.  

They are planned with modular architecture that allows mobile operators to deploy a passive antenna today then seamlessly upgrade the antenna with active components when the time is right with no impact on either the passive or active aspects of antenna performance. This means operators benefit from continued support for 4G networks as significant revenue generators, and allows the CapEx to be spread as the active modules can be introduced on a rolling basis with the benefits of a future proof model. 

As we see operators take a cautious approach to 5G investment, this style of modular equipment will come to the fore. Upgradable equipment will be at the heart of future proof networks and it is vital that OEMs and RF specialists factor this in when designing next generation equipment. Looking at antennas as building blocks with 4G antennas that allow for plug-in of 5G active components after the antenna installation itself smooths the way to 5G.

The winners 

Operators that are smart when it comes to CapEx will win out. Those that are able to define a strategy that generates ROI when it comes to 5G will understand how critical it is and a phased and modular approach may hold the answer. 

Additionally, consolidating equipment to reduce footprint will be one of the biggest trends in network infrastructure over the next 12 months. It simply has to be to ensure 5G becomes a tangible reality. More needs to be done with less; more capacity, higher throughput, but in less space with lower visual impact. The operators that succeed in embracing this consolidation will see the biggest rewards.

The combination of these needs is where Stealth 5G comes to the fore. Stealth 5G as a concept is simple – end-to-end solutions that can be easily deployed and overcome the challenges operators face around space, visual impact and network complexity. For operators, it means working with OEMs that are capable of packing significantly more functionality into the same form factor of existing equipment. Not only this, but it avoids one big rip and replace roll out and allows it to be deployed in a way that allows a balance between CapEx and ROI.

For more information on RFS’ contributions to these areas, click here.