Building the Road to 5G Deployment (Part 1)

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The thing about 5G is that it’s a new plan. Not just a new over the air (OTA) format, but a new way of thinking for networks. Now, there are some who get mad when it’s presented this way. But, before 5G, did we plan network splicing? How about massive IOT over a carrier’s spectrum? How about massive broadband everywhere? Is it just the wireless portion of the network doing this? Of course not.

The road to 5G is going to be long, but quick, which means that in 2021 we will expect 5G almost everywhere. While we want to see it in 2020, 2021 will be the final push, and 2022 should be a fairly mature market. That is an aggressive approach, but not impossible.

Let’s not forget that we’re not talking about mobility. We also need to look at fixed wireless access (FWA) as part of the business plan moving forward. The carriers are looking for new sources of revenue and being a massive ISP that can offer 5G in both mobile coverage and fixed wireless internet access service plans could be a game changer. The cable companies don’t seem concerned because the chances are good that the carriers will siphon off the low to mid-tier customers and leave the high-end customers for the cable companies. Let’s face it.  It’s hard to compete with a fiber connection to your house. If someone says 300Mbps is good enough, then they will accept it if they could care less about watching cable TV. The TV model is losing popularity to internet programming. All you need is an ISP and an app like Netflix or Amazon Prime. All the movie channels have an app, like HBO, Showtime, Starz, and Cinemax. Cable ain’t what it used to be.

So here it is, 2019, and 5G is becoming real. Why in 3 years we will all be screaming for 6G. but for now, let’s look at the road to 5G and where it will travel.

However, with flat data plans, does the investment make sense? Yes, because the carriers are going to break into new markets. Also, those multibillion-dollar companies got the cooperation of the FCC and many state governments to lease poles for a very small amount. All in the name of deploying 5G everywhere. Will they do it? They will deploy where they can make money. It is a business after all.

The cities probably feel cheated, but hey, that’s for the lawsuits to help the courts decide. I have to worry about how we will get there.

Let’s look at the road to 5G. By road, the path of coverage. It will all start with the macro sites, it always does. They will be the foundation — however, the urban areas where the loading is the heaviest. Large cities will take a lot more than macro to get there. That’s the test, and that is where the money is. Somehow, I don’t see a small town in rural Pennsylvania where you’re lucky to see the 4G symbol pop up on your smartphone becoming a priority to any carrier. Good enough is good enough if it doesn’t put money in the bank.

The Road to 5G needs a solid Foundation;

The path to 5G isn’t just to upgrade the radios. If we just wanted an end to end digital data solution, we would have stayed with LTE, (Long Term Evolution) for the 4G solution. No, 5G has to offer something more. While the OEMs were lucky enough to see a new 5G format roll out for the wireless solution, that is only one cobblestone in the 5G road.

To build the road we need to have more of a foundation. It’s like your home Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi is only as good as it’s backhaul. If you have a home connection of 5 Mbps then no matter what version Wi-Fi you, even 802.11ac or 802.11ax, it’s going to suck. Now, if you have a 1Gbps backhaul, then your Wi-Fi is awesome. It takes a solid foundation to make it work.

Backhaul is the key factor to the broadband we all hunger for. We need to have the backhaul built before we deploy anything in the HetNet. We also need a massive backhaul at the core, even if the core is in the cloud, we don’t want to be choked anywhere. What should we use? Fiber of course!


We all thought a few pairs would be sufficient. Now, they are running over a dozen pairs up a tower, sometimes to each sector. Can you imagine what we need for backhaul? More. That’s right, no matter what we have, we need more. I don’t know when it will end, but we always need more.

This means that the end to end planning needs to be done, but it may all be obsolete in a year. Make sure you allow for growth. If you think it may be a while, it’s good to plan for extra instead of limiting yourself.

When deploying, add spare fibers, many spares if possible. I think everyone is learning that lesson the hard way. We all thought voice demanded a lot, not look at us scrambling to keep up with the thirst for more and more data everywhere.

It’s not just the mobile carriers, the cable companies or any ISP is struggling to keep up. Wholesale fiber is suddenly a great deal.

Remember when we thought that dark fiber saturated the market about 10 years ago. Now those fiber companies are rolling out more and more lines, duplicating some lines in some areas and reaching to even more locations in new areas. We need solid backhaul. Probably a mix of fiber and wireless, but let’s face it, mostly fiber. Even wireless needs to connect to fiber somewhere.

We can rule out copper at this point; it’s at the end of its life-cycle for data. If someone knows of copper that can carry over 10Gbps of data, let me know.

Now that we have the fiber part figure out guess what. We need to upgrade the routers and muxes. Not just for more capacity, but for new services. We need to have SDN working so that they’re smart and efficient. They need to adjust themselves accordingly on the fly. They need to be ready to pass huge chunks of data. We need a form of AI in each router.

We have fiber running into the router and out of the router. That’s a lot of fiber. We need routers that can support the massive bandwidth needed at the sites. Whether it’s a CRAN or macro site, be prepared to have high-end equipment.

The routers need to be able to do more than ever. It can’t be too simple but offer plenty of features that support 5G. New features need to be put in place. Like network slicing. It’s going to become a necessity. We have to make the networks as efficient as possible. Network slicing will allow us to utilize the same network connection for multiple use cases that are going to operate on the network completely different from one another.

Now we have edge computing. It may be the edge or FOG, either way, we need to add servers closer to the end user. New 5G systems need latency to have a significant drop compared to 4G systems. This takes data out of the cloud and brings it to the edge.

Edge computing may be the next big challenge for 5G networks. It has to be as close as possible to the radio so that the end user has a better user experience. Who knew that the cloud would not be enough?Small Cell Cover 4

All of these items have to be laid as a foundation. The switches and data centers will move more and more operations into the cloud. Cloud computing will move to the edge. The data center is too far away, it is moving into the cloud, and the BBU is moving to the edge for remote radio heads. The cloud and edge will be essential to the success of 5G.

Then we need redundancy for everything, it all has to be ready for any outage. Truly a challenge, even when most core functionality is in the cloud. On the other hand, it may open up some options we didn’t have before.

The foundation built for 4G needs to be upgraded, perhaps even built from scratch in some cases. It has to be ready for the end to end 5G system to succeed.

Granted, I skipped some steps, but you get the idea. All of this before we think about how the wireless coverage will compete with traditional ISPs. The mobile systems will improve, but the mmwave spectrum will open up new possibilities for 5G vertical markets to grow and succeed.

That’s right; the wireless coverage will need to expand beyond what we have now. We’ll need a lot more sites to cover more geography.

Spectrum limitations could be an issue. We need more spectrum. The FCC is opening up more and more every year.

Look at it broken down:

  • Increase the backhaul,
  • Deploy more fiber,
  • Improve the routers, SDN, network functionality,
  • Add spectrum,
  • Move more computing to the cloud,
  • Move more computing to the edge,
  • Increase HetNet,
  • Increase the number of sites,
  • Create new vertical markets.

It all has to be connected by a network that can support it. The foundation not only has to be built but extended to each destination in the road to 5G. Each stop will require a slightly different solution. Each solution may require some tweaking.

We can all agree, without the backhaul and routing setup properly; the user experience will suck!

Building up the Road’s Foundation for 5G;

We’re not done yet! The foundation will need a lot more than backhaul. Broadband is only part of the story, seriously. This is a multipurpose network where we rely on the last mile. Remember, wireless is what 5G is all about. We’re just shoving a lot more under one umbrella.

Wireless will actually be the last mile of the foundation. When we speak of 5G, we’re really saying, the latest and greatest wireless connection ever! That is until we figure out 6G, but let’s save that for 2021.

To build wireless connectivity everywhere, we need to pull out all the stops. We can’t stop at macro, CRAN, or small cell. We can’t stop with urban street coverage. We have to cover indoors as well as outdoors. We have to cover rural as well as urban. Everything in between is the dream and the expectation. Seriously, it has to cover everywhere, someday.

We need all the tools. We all expect the usual suspects, macro, small cells, CRAN, and DAS. The Het Net is alive and kicking. Remember when we were all talking about the heterogeneous network, it bloomed in 4G. In 5G it will explode, maybe in 2020, but be patient, it’s going to explode.

Macro is where it all starts with the carriers. While they want to roll out more CRAN sites, they still need to upgrade the foundation of their wireless network, the macro sites. Macro sites are the foundation of all the sites. They could be towers or rooftops or billboards. They are going to make the biggest bang for the buck.

Macro makes a lot of sense as a hub. It will also become more of a focal point for backhaul. The UE backhaul is already being utilized by Sprint, mainly because they have a ton of 2.5GHz spectrum. They have the tool to create UE backhaul. That’s the replacement for microwave. Granted, it’s a bit more limited, but if it works, then roll with it. I believe Airspan helped with this solution. When I was with Alcatel-Lucent, we also created this solution. Like all good solutions, there was a company out of China that would build the unit. We had to define the features. By the way, we were too late, Airspan was many months ahead of us, and they did a great job developing the solution with Sprint.

So, macros will be the hub. Most carriers will build out from a focal point. Whether it’s a wireless connection or a fiber run to the next site. Most of you don’t care, that’s the carrier’s problem to deliver the backhaul anyway it makes financial sense. That is, unless you deliver dark fiber or sell microwave, or install it, or do backhaul design. Oh, now suddenly I have your interest.

Even the FWA, (Fixed Wireless Access), will be at macro sites. Providers want to put the equipment at a macro site first to be cost-effective and have proof of concept. They will eventually roll them out as part of the Centralized RAN or Cloud RAN, but for now, the macro site gives them the backhaul they need and all the supporting equipment. Then, once they prove it works, they can build out using the macro site as the hub. It will be the poles that get the business to get as close to the customer as possible using an active antenna system. Hello, massive MIMO and mmwave!

You may ask “why macro first?”, and I am glad you did. Macro sites have what they want to test and create a proof of concept. Sure, we love the idea of small cells and CRANs doing it all. But the existing macro sites have massive backhaul, routers, fiber everywhere, and all the foundation of the radios in one location. Why not start there, get the proof of concept going, then work your way out?

It makes sense. If you think these are only tower sites, then look around at any rooftop in a city. There they are, massive macro sites feeding the city the best they can. They work hard so the small cell/CRAN deployments can be more efficient as a supporting cast.

Then, when you get to the tier 2 cities, where tall buildings could be luxury, you build the CRAN model. Then you add the small cells. Remember it’s about more than coverage, but the performance of the site matters!

Don’t worry; the need to get closer to the customers everywhere will keep the carriers expanding the networks. They need to put the equipment as close to the customer as possible. They will need the equipment to be rolled out like small cells. I say small cells, but the equipment will be more like a C-RAN, (Cloud RAN), very soon. It gets confusing here because CRAN is for Centralized RAN and C-RAN is for Cloud RAN. Similar but different. The important thing to remember is that the radio head or active antenna is on a pole, closer to the end user, and the BBU functions are being performed elsewhere. With CRAN it’s in a BBU hotel, with C-RAN it’s partially in the cloud.

So, the macro sites are the first to upgrade. In the case of Sprint and T-Mobile, they are betting on Massive MIMO to be the game changer. Sprint has so much bandwidth in the 2.5GHz band that Massive MIMO makes sense. Can you imagine, they have around 100MHz of contiguous spectrum that they can roll out with 5G and LTE. WOW! Why are they not winning the bandwidth battle? They are in a good position if they can deploy successfully. I hope they can execute with precision.

T-Mobile is counting on the 600MHz to make things happen. That and the merger so they can grab that 2.5GHz spectrum. If the new T-Mobile happens, they should be able to pass the #2 carrier easily.

As you know, Verizon and AT&T are rolling out 5G on their systems too. They are also rolling out mmwave, on a smaller scale, to compete with the ISP markets. I see them grabbing the younger customers who want great data speeds at their home but don’t care about cable TV like it is today. They also want mobility. And, they want a competitive price. Can the carriers do all three? We’ll see. T-Mobile believes they can transition to that market quickly and easily. They already have a solid following of millennials. If they can execute a solid deployment in mmwave, I would think they could dominate.

Then the equipment will roll out to DAS, indoors and out. Whether the DAS is small cells, C-RAN, or CRAN, it could be licensed, CBRS, unlicensed, or mmwave spectrum. It could be a mixture of all of these, whatever aggregation will allow, which is anything and everything in today’s wireless world. I think true small cells will come last because of the limitations with UE loading. I’m guessing these systems will be planned for large data, and then coverage, and finally IOT services.

Don’t let the poles fool you! You may say, “Hey, that pole has a small cell on it!” Actually, chances are good most outdoor sites have a mini-macro or another form of CRAN. The CRAN will appear to be the small cell. The carriers will actually deploy radio heads and active antennas in lieu of small cells. They will grab poles and put a powerful radio there. They are already doing this. Many are everyone convinced that it is a normal small cell. It’s probably not. They have lots of small cells out there; they may even classify these as small cells. It’s hard to tell anymore. A radio sits on a pole, that’s all we need to know, right? As long as it looks nice, runs quiet, and has safe RF levels, we’re all happy.

Urban street deployment, the first stop on the Road to 5G:

Let’s break it down, 5G is all about serving the people. Where are most people who purchase devices? You guessed it, cities, which we call the urban areas. If we can’t make it there, we can’t make it anywhere. This is where 5G should shine, in the urban areas where the loading is the heaviest.

We already see it with the massive MIMO and 5G deployments for the major carriers in the US. They are concentrating on the urban area first. Hopefully, the macro sites with 5G can handle a lot more customers than a normal LTE site. Just like when LTE could handle more customers than a 3G site. It’s all about the loading and offloading. Really, it’s all about the user’s experience and quality of service. If we solve loading problems, then the user has a better experience. If you get mad at your smartphone for being slow, then a better user experience means a better quality of life, at least for that moment. Don’t we all want to be happy? Will 5G make us happy? I hope so!

OK, the user experience in urban environments will be critical to 5G success, especially in mmwave 5G. For the big carriers to compete with ISPs, this is the place to start. It’s business as usual. So, they will start here by upgrading the macro sites to offer mobile and fixed coverage. If they can get mmwave to take off and put a dent in the ISP markets in urban areas, then they can start expanding into other markets. I actually see this as a slow and painful process, but you have to start somewhere. This seems cost-effective compared to FTTH, (Fiber To The Home).

Macro will the starting point; then they need radios on poles to fill in the holes and possibly offload. For mmwave, it will be about getting as close to the customer as possible. They need to serve more and more people. They may rely on Wi-Fi hotspots, which so far has been an essential part of the carriers offloading plans. Carriers rely heavily on Wi-Fi, almost enough to invest a lot of money in it. Some do, and some don’t, but all see Wi-Fi as a player in this data-centric world.

The urban area needs to use the poles and buildings in the city. The carriers have been trying to cover from the outside in to be cost-effective, now they will continue that trend by utilizing more and more small cells. It will not be enough if they want to keep their customers happy. They hate paying for DAS, but they will need to do something to cover all those large buildings with environmentally upgraded windows.

Let’s face it; they need to go indoors.

Remember when small ISPs deployed Wi-Fi and multipoint units to offer internet access? Now, with mmwave, the carriers have found a way to do it in a cost-effective manner. They have the budgets to build something huge in dense urban areas. They will compete head to head with each other as well as incumbent cable companies. They will need to get the signal to the end user. They will need a competitive cost model. I am pretty sure you know all of this, it’s pretty obvious.  The thing is, how do they do it?

When deploying in the cities, the carriers are already coming up with smart pole deployments. The thing is, they have been using more CRAN and oDAS deployments. This means that the BBU hotel has to connect to higher power radios all across town. This means fiber everywhere or some type of kick-ass fronthaul connection. It’s not necessarily the RF power the carriers want but the loading that a macro site can do versus a small cell. It’s all about getting the biggest bang for your buck, and a macro BBU sector can deliver a lot of bang compared to a normal small cell.

Keep in mind, when I say smart pole, I don’t necessarily mean a typical small cell. Most carriers now put a full radio head on the poles to gain all the benefits that a macro site would have.

So urban deployments are going to rely heavily on the macro sites for the overreaching coverage. Solutions like installing smart poles for street coverage and outside-in coverage to penetrate buildings. Finally, they need to go indoors, all the way, not through a window. It could be a small cell, femtocell or maybe they will rely on Wi-Fi.

With 5G fixed wireless, it will change some of the design of the build out. The carriers are going to start targeting the apartment buildings and dense residential areas. They will start to change their target areas, looking at a new customer base. Also, they may try to hit small to mid-size businesses, business parks, and business buildings. It’s a new vertical for the 5G market that extends beyond the mobile customers.

I’m not sure how many of you remember this, but we used Microwave to connect the internet backhaul to buildings and then wired them from the roof down. (Still being done today in many areas.) I don’t think this will be the carrier’s model going forward. They want to connect without wires whenever possible. However, it could still be a possibility to connect the building with a mmwave option and then maybe wire the buildings from the rooftop down. It just makes more sense to connect through a window or using DAS and small cells inside. I just don’t think they will want to do any more inside the building than they have to. Dealing with building owners is a hassle and adds cost.

It makes sense to offer smaller businesses the package of the mobile phone and ISP. Maybe free Netflix or something.

What’s going to make a city a “5G” city? It’s not the government, they say they care, but they won’t put any skin in the game. By skin, I mean money. They want the 5G, but they don’t want to invest. They want the carriers to foot the bill, yet, they also want the credit for making it a 5G city. Well, it’s coming. The carriers have no choice but to make the investment, in spite of the cities.


Now we have to get by the deployment controversy, where permitting and pole rent is being argued over. That’s a completely different discussion, but one that could delay deployments. The city wants to be fairly compensated for the poles. The city wants them to look nice and be safe. The carriers say they want quick deployments, but the fact is, rent and permitting eat away at budgets. I believe the permitting issue can be resolved quickly. The city will need to set a standard up front, outline it, and then the carrier has a model to work with. Mass permitting is the key, in my opinion. I don’t know what to say about the rent. It’s hard for a carrier making billions to say they don’t have the money for rent. Just like the city will say they need more money off a pole which previously cost them money to maintain. The one thing I do know is that installing fiber could be a nightmare for any city, especially if it’s buried. That means the streets will get ripped up anytime they add fiber. That is another long drawn out article. Let’s get back to 5G.

The 5G systems will vary from carrier to carrier. They are rolling out with the carrier’s 5G marketing fanfare. However, as 5G begins to spread, businesses are going to see the advantages of new services using broadband and mass IOT. They are going to appreciate the lower latency and increased broadband. It’s going to help the small businesses offer new services in more places than ever before. Not to mention the new business cases.

Then we’ll begin to see the IOT plays that couldn’t happen on a mass scale before. The possibility that AI can use mass data collection over large wireless systems to capture real-time data from devices attached to packages everywhere.  Many of the business cases will be tested in urban business areas. Can you feel it? Can you imagine 5G making major changes to small and mid-sized businesses? New opportunity for disruptors.

Indoor deployment is the second stop on the road to 5G:

That’s right, the road to 5G goes through the inside of large buildings. Right now, the carriers rely on Wi-Fi to offload traffic indoors. This may change with 5G. Carriers will want to put their spectrum, whether it’s licensed, unlicensed, or lightly licensed, everywhere their customers are. The thing is, they don’t want to pay rent to go indoors unless it’s a huge venue. That means if DAS is needed, then someone else has to do it, for no money from the carriers. This will require some creative solutions. T-Mobile and Sprint address this with smaller small cells and femtocells. Sprint has the Magic Box, a huge success.

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Today’s high rises are super energy-efficient, which means windows block sunlight and probably RF. If you’ve ever done coverage testing indoors, you may have experienced energy-efficient windows which block RF from entering the building. Indoor coverage will have to be solved, and it may not be by the carriers because there has to be some type of payback.

We have to go indoors, even before we go to the suburban markets. That’s because the indoor coverage in an urban environment is critical to the success of 5G. It can’t be overlooked or skipped. Will MVNOs pop up that specialize covering indoors? It makes sense to me. I personally would love to see it happen. Carriers could allow them to use their spectrum indoors, or they could use CBRS or unlicensed. I hope that becomes the new disruptor!

Indoor coverage will become a necessity for the end user. Customers are no longer going to complain about coverage; they are going to find someone who can solve the indoor coverage problem.

What? Change carriers? Hey, T-Mobile eliminated contracts. More people buy open devices than ever before. (Carriers stopped subsidizing devices.) What’s stopping customers from moving to a new carrier based on coverage, cost, and performance? Open devices can go anywhere. No contracts give us the freedom to go anywhere. Why stay with a carrier that only works outside? Why stay with a carrier that has crappy performance? Why pay too much? Freedom!

Indoor coverage could be with small cells if space is small, say on a hundred or so workers. That may change if it’s a public space with thousands of people there. Unfortunately, the carriers are probably less concerned about a few people with heavy loading. It’s hard to plan for that, and they will rely on Wi-Fi for offloading that data. If those 20 people in one office have 4 different carriers, the only one who may listen is T-Mobile because they have the solution and they want all 20 of those customers. To be honest, I don’t think Verizon and AT&T care unless maybe Bill Gates is one of said customers. Even then, is he there that often? They would still question it. Sorry, I digress, let’s get back on the road to 5G.

How will we cover indoors? The carrier made it clear that unless there is a huge DAS system needed, they really don’t want to invest in indoor coverage. They chose to let Wi-Fi handle the offloading. Look at anyone’s home; all the data is going over Wi-Fi. It works, and Wi-Fi is always improving. In fact, they hate deploying DAS because it is so expensive, and the payback is very limited.

There are exceptions for using DAS. Large venues, like the super bowl, sports arenas, large buildings, convention centers, and places where people gather. This is outside of public safety; I am talking carrier DAS here. DAS systems are keeping all the installers busy with upgrades, especially over the last 5 years. It’s been a battle to maintain. That’s one reason carriers hate them so much. It’s a nightmare to manage, upgrade, and maintain. Oh, it’s not cheap either!

We have plenty of solutions; Corning has a nice small cell solution for 3 carriers in the USA. They have a complete small cell solution for indoor coverage. They will roll out 5G as it happens. It makes sense to have the fiber, small cells, and the routers all defined in one solution. Someone has to put it all together, right?

Will this be the same for businesses? Will they try the CBRS spectrum or shift to 60GHz? Or, will the carriers deploy the fixed wireless spectrum? Maybe, they want to be the premier ISP to offer indoor coverage to small and mid-size businesses. That makes sense, doesn’t it?


Part 2 will take more time. Sorry. 

Thank you for your time to learn something new! Let’s use it today.

Be smart, be safe, and pay attention!

See Ya!

I appreciate all of your support. Thank you so much!



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