How will 5G impact network operators in 2022?

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As more people turned to remote working during the early stages of the pandemic, operators shifted investment to fixed infrastructure underpinning home broadband connections. 

About the author

Douglas Rankin, Vice President of Outdoor Wireless Sales, Europe at CommScope.

Looking into 2022, we’ll see renewed focus on the modernization of 4G and time spent on evaluating the most pragmatic ways to add capacity and capability into 5G deployment plans. We see three major trends in the market for the coming year:

Determining a strategy to simplify 5G rollouts

Urgency around spectrum rollout is creating new opportunities for mobile operators to address the ever-growing requirements for network capacity, spectral and operational efficiency, and a migration path to 5G and beyond.

Across the globe, operators are seeking ways to monetize their networks and we’ll see the first layer of 5G gain traction mainly in cities. In addition to faster mobile speeds, the industry will test new use cases such as customized fan experiences, 5G connected collars on farms and remote-controlled ultrasound scans over public 5G networks. The spectrum used for these new services will require densification and operators will seek technology and other economical deployment models, such as leveraging neutral hosts to compliment local coverage requirements.

We may also see business model innovation coming from industries like healthcare or logistics, for example. This is no surprise given AWS recently launched a new managed service that helps enterprises set up and scale private 5G mobile networks in their facilities in days instead of months. This trend may continue as vertical application specialists decide to purchase a slice of the 5G network to be rebranded and sold as a niche industry solution for their customers.

Uncovering ways to maximize existing infrastructure

The race to 5G has become as much about civil engineering as it is about technology. In fact, one of our customers said 5G is the biggest civil engineering program of all Gs. With 5G there are new frequencies, meaning new equipment will have to be deployed on top of already crowded towers. Operators face significant challenges as this combination of heavier 4G and 5G equipment puts phone masts under additional strain.

Mobile operators are looking for ways to maximize use of their current infrastructure while reducing power consumption. The goal is to minimize the need to build new towers or add structurally to existing ones.

To address this, engineers will combine 5G active antennas with passive base station antennas already used in the legacy cellular networks. Operators will seek technologies that optimize their tower space and wind loading while combining multiple antennas under one radio. More network operators may turn to neutral host providers to reduce footprint, cost, and increase energy efficiency, as well as meeting internal and external sustainability requirements.

Looking ahead, operators will continue to ramp up their eco-credentials, investigating how much power is used to manufacture 5G components. This might include additional green commitments based on legislation and concerns around energy storage, new energy usage and heat dissipation. Energy efficient equipment, renewable electricity, and new ways to power the network will continue to be measured as operators aim to reduce their carbon footprints.

Being green has never been more important and in an increasingly 5G world, especially as network operators could face significant growth in their energy bills. As operators turn to multiple input, multiple-output (MIMO) techniques for 5G readiness, they could potentially consume 2.5 to 3 times more energy than previous systems. This means that in the foreseeable future, the millions of cells sites at the heart of the 5G network will require more power than their 2G, 3G and 4G, Long Term Evolution (LTE) predecessors.

Although passive antenna solutions draw very little power and use less energy to manufacture, operators will become more concerned about power consumption in 2022 as they deploy more massive MIMO antennas for urban and suburban areas.

Furthermore, C-band spectrum has only recently been allocated, so operators haven’t yet had time to turn up C-band networks, but as they do, power consumption will loom larger as a key factor to address. In the future, we may see cloud-native network management software using analytics to collect data from devices in the field. This could help to identify looming network performance problems before they occur.

Seeking ways to support Open-RAN

Before Open RAN becomes a core 5G technology, there is still plenty of work to be done around interoperability between vendors. We expect to see further commitments in promoting network architecture and industry standards in 2022.

The focus will be on long term planning with specific emphasis on Open-RAN as a concept for 4G as operators consider new strategies on how new standards will play out in 5G rollouts, especially in Europe. Notably, Vodafone launched its first Open-RAN cell site in England this year and plans to roll out a further 2500 sites.

Ultimately, the goal of Open-RAN will be to drive more innovation and to improve operational efficiency. Operators will have more flexibility on the types of services they offer as third parties write new AI-driven applications.

Preparing outdoor wireless networks for the future

Operators are globally estimated to spend around $1 trillion (2019 – 2025) as they capture emerging growth in 5G. 2022 will be a year of building experience in planning and deploying 5G networks.

They will turn to vendors who can help simplify 5G rollouts and maximize previous investments. For example, active/passive hybrid antennas can reduce tower loading and operational costs; simplified base station and radio connections speed deployments and reduce labor costs; power conditioning equipment can cut power consumption. Operational efficiency will accelerate 5G and Open RAN deployments in 2022 to 2025 across the globe as MNOs balance budgets and make use of their technologies. TowerCos and Neutral Hosts will continue their momentum and become more relevant too.

In addition, telco equipment vendors will be expected to deliver network-agnostic solutions, so their customers have more flexibility on deployment options.

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