The global race is on to build out necessary infrastructure to meet the promises of 5G. First, 5G deployment requires upgrading existing cell towers. Ultimately, infrastructure providers will have to extend a network of small cells to bring the technology closer to the customer. In the meantime, there is an array of pilot programs underway that are going to require low-voltage installations and upgrades. 5G deployment will benefit contractors by bringing a new level of visibility and connectivity to cities, transportation, workplaces and construction sites.
Transitioning from 4G networks to 5G to achieve the speed, capacity and coverage desired involves the use of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum. Carriers continue to use low-band spectrum—below 1 gigahertz (GHz) for voice and 4G LTE service. Low-band spectrum will remain critical because it provides greater coverage over longer distances, but it does not enable the same high speeds as high-band spectrum. Upgraded equipment installation is needed on cellular towers.
As 5G deployment grows, carriers are increasingly using the high-band spectrum, or millimeter wave. Millimeter wave spectrum provides increased speed and capacity over short distances, but does not travel as far as low-band, so it requires considerable infrastructure, often referred to as small cell sites, and the connection of low-voltage cabling. A typical system can track as much as 1 million sensors within a square mile. However, high-band 5G can’t go through walls, and has a relatively smaller coverage area.
Mid-band spectrum—the Goldilocks band—provides coverage, capacity and low latency. Already deployed in Europe, the Federal Communications Commission is in the process of making a valuable swath of mid-band spectrum available for 5G in the United States. Both low- and mid-band 5G offer faster internet speeds using, for the most part, existing cellular infrastructure. This year, 5G towers and routing equipment are being built in major cities around the world.
T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are among 5G early adopters and are already providing 5G-based mobile phones and tablets. Verizon alone will be offering about 20 5G-based devices this year. According to JPMorgan analyst Samik Chatterjee, 300 million 5G-enabled smartphones will be shipped in 2020.
Regardless of the band used by the carrier or private network, 5G will require a hardware upgrade, either in the network or the device. Until now, that has been a project for service providers that are upgrading and building new cell towers. But the differentiation of bands effects where the upgrades are taking place, said Bill Menezes, Gartner Research’s senior principal analyst.
For carriers, low-band and mid-band are the most cost-effective network deployments.
“They can use some of their existing spectrum holdings, if they desire, and allocate that to 5G transmissions. They may already own spectrum that would be suitable for 5G,” Menezes said. “That’s part of the value for low- or mid-band.”
The trade-off is that they are still using those low- and mid-band spectrum holdings in conjunction with 4G, which is not stand-alone 5G. A smartphone could be using 5G and 4G at the same time. For instance, 5G could be used for downlink and 4G for uplink. The net effect for users is that data speeds will be similar to what they’re already getting with 4G rather than what could be achieved with millimeter wave.
Raising the bar
In the case of millimeter wave, AT&T and Verizon are among those testing the ultra-high-speed systems in densely populated, urban areas where a cluster of fast connectivity would be a benefit, such as a virtual reality gaming area with a high volume of people and data, Menezes said.
“We are seeing initial set up of 5G zones that can take advantage of specialized applications like virtual-reality stuff,” he said.
These systems are designed more often for sensors, such as the ones used with internet of things (IoT) applications, and won’t be able to handle that kind of data speed. A typical IoT deployment will include a system where devices have 5G millimeter wave sensors—potentially thousands of them—in a small space that can talk to a server.
To move the innovation along, most operators have 5G laboratories or information centers where they are testing new concepts. Verizon offers 5G development contests with application developers, said Jyrki Penttinen, GSMA’s senior technology manager, North America, and author of “5G Explained.”
While 5G’s initial promise can be found in increased data speeds, those innovators are creating applications for much more.
“I think rather soon we will see more applications,” Penttinen said, adding that within a few years, the innovation will have led to commercial solutions. “I believe developers are already working on some exciting solutions.”
Crawling before walking
In the short run, Penttinen said, “low-bands are absolutely great for long propagation, 10 miles or much more, for covering rural areas.” The drawback is the bandwidth is limited, “so the bit rates are rather low.”
High-band is the one that really makes the difference because it achieves the highest data speeds. Access points using high-band have a large capacity. Typically, setting up a high-band system would be comparable to deploying a Wi-Fi system using gateways or access points to create hotspots, he said.
This is just the beginning. Over the next year, 5G networks appear that do more than offer high data rates.
“This is gradual. This is still the initial version, offering nice data speeds, but we are just opening the door,” he said.
In the meantime, networks in Asia, North America and Europe all face the same challenge—they need to upgrade existing base stations or build new ones, which is a slow process. Europe’s strategy has been to focus on the mid-band spectrum. But European coverage areas are still fairly limited.
On the other hand, much of the earliest deployment of mid- and high-band systems has been in South Korea, where about 5 million users are covered today, Penttinen said.
Global customer bases are steadily increasing. For example, 50% of the U.S. population is estimated to be covered by 5G within the next five years, while global coverage will be about 15%.
“There will be more applications and solutions and devices in IoT as we go,” Penttinen said.
What’s in it for you?
On construction sites, sensors could help contractors track their workers or assets, such as when workers are together, if workers are in an unsafe zone or when a piece of equipment requires maintenance due to its usage history.
It will provide that Big Data-type environment, that will help builders or contractors better manage the site, Penttinen said.
High-band 5G can also be used in the manufacturing setting. There, IoT sensors already using the LTE network might make sense for them, he said.
Moreover, 5G creates construction opportunities by requiring more fiber to update cellular network coverage. This is especially true with millimeter waves, where access points must be installed around a coverage area.
“The more we get wireless services, the more we need the backbone,” Penttinen said.
Currently, the 5G efforts are still about groundwork.
“It doesn’t mean getting rid of wires,” he said, adding that, in fact, it’s the opposite. “It requires connectivity to enable the networks.”
Verizon is already deploying some high-band solutions. The company was first in the world to launch a 5G mobile network along with a commercially available 5G-enabled smartphone in April 2019, according to Christina Moon Ashraf, Verizon’s external communications manager. The Verizon 5G ultra-wideband network exists already in parts of 31 cities in the United States, and the number will grow this year.
Verizon is also providing 5G mobility service in 16 NFL stadiums and four NBA and NFL arenas. It has formed partnerships with companies such as the New York Times, Disney, Corning and Snap.
“When customers access our 5G ultra- wideband network, they will get a 5G experience that is a generational difference from today’s 4G LTE, not just a few percentage points bump in performance,” Ashraf said.
This ultra-wideband network, leverages millimeter wave through its unique physical properties, including its high bandwidth and latency characteristics, along with smart antenna technologies that lend themselves to dense sensor data collection.
“This, coupled with high-speed local computer and machine learning techniques, enable things like near real-time data processing,” she said.
5G ultra-wideband’s long-term impact on the construction industry will be one of sheer scale. The mobile industry has been eyeing the IoT and big data market for years, and Ashraf predicts that 5G will turbocharge these efforts.
With the power to connect up to a million devices within a square mile, 5G will enable massive, scalable and valuable IoT capabilities known as the Massive Internet of Things, she said.
With that in mind, the day is coming when builders and workers can attach a sensor to pretty much everything and collect large amounts of data. Of course, collecting the data isn’t enough, Ashraf said, you need to know what to do with it.
“5G, alongside an emerging capability called edge computing, will drive advanced analytical and AI programs to help improve decision-making processes and machine-to-machine communications,” she said,
Analysts and companies seem to agree that 5G is going to help usher into an age of infrastructure connection work, and beyond that, to a more intelligent construction site.