The buzz about 5G technology is at an all time high. However, initial adoption in 2019 is expected to be slow, with the number of 5G connections estimated to be less than 0.06 million by the end of this year. Things will pick up from the next year, and according to a recent GSMA report, 5G connections will make up nearly 15% of the total smartphone connectivity count worldwide in 2025. This growth will keep pace with the ongoing proliferation in Internet of Things (IoT) – with 2025 expected to witness over 25 billion IoT connections. Over the next decade and a half, 5G will add well over $2 trillion to the global economy.
Contrary to what many thought earlier, 5G is not just a ‘faster version of 4G’. It is an entirely new technology – and as such – there are certain bottlenecks and challenges that might take the pace off its initial rollout. For starters, all stakeholders have to be prepared for the significantly high expenses – right from OEMs and carrier service providers, to chip manufacturers, and even final users. There are technological issues that need to be resolved as well. Over here, we will take you through some of the most important 5G connectivity challenges in 2020:
Moving beyond 3G/4G systems – While a lot of the existing infrastructure for 3G and 4G connections would still be usable, the demand for spectrum will increase manifold for the implementation of 5G. In particular, frequency bands above 24 GHz will be required to deliver some of the additional spectrum. The onus will be on the operators to select, test and deploy technologies that are spectrally efficient, have minimal interference risks, and can be relied upon. What’s more, since the average coverage area of 5G stations is smaller – there will be a definite need to set up more base stations and core networks. As a result, the overall infrastructure might become relatively complicated. The challenge is to make the transfer from 3G/4G to 5G as seamless as possible.
Note: On average, 5G speeds are likely to be upto 10X higher than 4G/LTE. In simulated environments, a 5G connection can work at 20 Gigabits per second or more.
Implementation of mmWave frequency bands – The performance of 5G will depend on the availability of high-performance millimeter wave frequency bands (mmWave bands). The implementation of these bans might pose some initial problems though. The demand for access to larger bandwidth channels will grow exponentially, with frequencies in the 30 GHz-300 GHz range (the ‘ultra-high’ frequency range) for 5G connectivity. In addition to setting up the mmWave bands, it has to be made sure that the levels of interference from other devices are as low as possible, while maximising the communication speeds. Device interferences can slow down network speeds in a big way.
Note: Apart from extremely high speeds, 5G has very low latency. These two features make 5G connections an ideal fit for cutting-edge IoT applications (unlike most existing cell phone technologies).
Growing value of spectrum and usability challenges – As 5G starts rolling out on a large-scale the value of compatible spectrum will continue to soar, and ‘spectrum scarcity’ might very well become a very real problem. As a direct result, there will be a big rush among operators to acquire spectrum space – with the competition going up at different levels. It also needs to be kept under consideration that, a particular spectrum or frequency band can only be used by mutually compatible services (i.e., telecom services that do not, in any way, adversely affect the performance of each other). It is also imperative for the adoption, testing and final implementation of the 5G spectrums to be in adherence with globally approved reregulation standards.
Allocation of spectrum and related challenges – The growing value and scarcity of spectrum and viable frequency bands for 5G operations is likely to throw up several spectrum allocation challenges as well. In fact, experts opine that one of the biggest problems in 5G rollout processes is the inability to maintain a fully harmonised allocation of spectrum and frequency ranges. Wayleave processes for 5G can, by their very nature, become complicated and difficult to maintain. There are elaborate legal considerations to adhere to as well, including the usage models and licensing terms for 5G spectrum. There might also be instances of refused planning permissions as well, leading to delays and unforeseen expenses. In the initial stages, the 3.4 GHz and 24 GHz frequency bands (along with the 700 MHz band) are being selected by many operators for deploying 5G solutions.
Increase in cyber security risks – In a recent EU study, the possibilities of new security issues after the implementation of 5G infrastructure were highlighted. The number of cyber attacks globally has been rising on a year-on-year (YoY) basis – and since the arrival of 5G will pull up the number of active smart devices in the market massively – the chances of such attacks will increase significantly too. For both corporate houses as well as individual users, data leaks can lead to serious losses and additional expenses. Since 5G will enable end-to-end network compatibility, a single hacked smart device can compromise the entire network – resulting in identity thefts, denial of service, and other problems.
Problems in deploying small cells – Over the next couple of years or so, systematic small cell deployment will emerge as one of the most important factors for 5G implementation. However, the planning for this can take quite a bit of time – while there are several local permissions to obtain as well. Since the technology is new, there can be complexities in the code powers and access codes too. From the financial standpoint too, things can be challenging – since the fees for hiring basic equipments (e.g., smart utility poles) can be prohibitively high. Also, regular exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (EMF) can give rise to the possibilities of serious health risks. If small cell deployments remain fragmented (certain rules and regulations might play a role in this), the smooth rollout of 5G can get hampered.
Enhanced power requirement high-frequency bands for 5G applications – For 5G implementation and smooth operations, extremely high data rates are required for maintaining connectivity across users, devices and cell towers. For that, cutting-edge high-speed networks are required – and the fact is, such robust infrastructure for 5G operations are not yet in place. The entire process is going to take time, and as a direct result, the rate of 5G adoption is not going to be as high as initially predicted by several industry experts. The new technology also makes the presence of many intermediate networks mandatory. In a nutshell, the power requirements for full-scale 5G deployment will be higher than anything we have seen this far – and globally, the industry is not yet fully ready for the transformation.
Need to link base stations with the core 5G networks – Fiber networks and similarly powerful wireless technologies will play a big role in the performance of 5G connections in future. As such, the importance of setting up reliable and efficient wireless backhaul solutions can hardly be overemphasised. These wireless backhaul systems should ideally be established in HAPS (high-altitude platform stations) – and hence, their capacity has to be very high. For powering 5G connectivity for business as well as individual use, powerful satellite links and microwave links have to be present in the backhauls as well. Unless the core networks and base stations are integrated seamlessly, 5G connections will falter and network drops will become frequent.
Note: 5G is costly, there are no two ways about it. In small cities, the average cost for implementing a small cell-compatible 5G network is just a shade under $7 million. The cost figure goes up to a whopping $55 million for a large city.
Bottlenecks in fibre backhaul deployment – As already highlighted in an earlier point, fibre networks are set to play a crucial role in 5G deployments worldwide. However, there are not many reliable, high-capacity fibre networks available for use at the current point in time. A classic case in point for this would be the European markets – with UK in particular having extremely low fibre penetration rates. Reversing this situation and pulling up the fibre adoption won’t happen overnight – and hence, there are likely to be delays. In places/setups where fibre backhauls are either practically or financially viable, the focus would shift to wireless backhauls. A full-blown 5G portfolio should include PMP, satellite links, as well as mmWave – and creating such portfolios would require careful research, hefty investments, and all the required time.
Risk of rural-urban digital divides – This is going to be necessary, and unavoidable, evil of the arrival of 5G. For operators, the densely populated urban areas are obviously going to be more commercially attractive – due to the availability of advanced infrastructure and the presence of more users. Conversely, the relatively backward rural/suburban locations – where there are infrastructure and awareness gaps – are unlikely to receive any significant share of the overall 5G investments. As a result, the so-called ‘digital divide’ between rural-urban areas – which exists already – will widen further. It is up to the central, state and municipal authorities to ensure all-inclusive 5G deployments, so that rural locations are not left far behind. There should not be too much of a discrepancy between the communication speeds in rural and urban areas either.
More cellular communication towers are required – Multiple tests have proven that the 5G mmWave signals have much lower travel capacity – and significantly less coverage – than 4G waves. To maintain the ever-increasing connectivity and communication requests, 5G will make it absolutely essential for many more cellular communication towers to be remanufactured and installed (working with only the existing towers will not provide adequate coverage). Now, establishing the required number additional towers is an expensive proposition – and in many countries and for many operators, making this sort of investment possible is going to be a time-consuming affair. The situation is simple: more high-end resources are required for 5G, but not everyone is prepared to shell out big bucks for these resources.
Availability of 5G compatible devices – As the industry leaders refine and test 5G technology and gradually make it publicly available, the demand for 5G devices will surge across the world. With the launch of new 5G phones, more challenges, feature requirements, use cases and opportunities will also emerge. This is like a cycle, something that the operators have to follow carefully – to make the most out of 5G technology, and deliver the best results to end-users. Manufacturers are increasingly trying to create a solution in which 5G, 4G, 3G and 2G will all be embedded in a single chip. Professionals also have to keep a close eye on the need to maintain ‘net neutrality’.
Note: 5G will increase overall network expenses in a big way – with small cells, fibre networks, and additional macro sites all contributing heavily to the total costs.
Over the last three years, global smartphone shipments have been gradually going down. The arrival of 5G would, hopefully, give the industry a much-needed spark. From a relatively measly 8.5% of the total smartphone shipments in 2020, 5G devices will make up nearly 29% by 2023. The 5G revolution is fast gaining momentum – and although the above-mentioned challenges will cause some initial hiccups – adoption rates will continue to go up in the foreseeable future.