Overcoming the challenges of indoor 5G

Wifi router on table in living room of house
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We spend a lot of time ensuring our homes and workspaces are comfortable and suitable for our needs. According to the government, in the UK, people spend between 80-90% of their time indoors. This has a direct impact on where mobile data is used, with data from Ericsson indicating that 80% of mobile data is consumed inside.

Yet the majority of UK mobile network operators (MNOs) still prioritize outdoor coverage in network upgrades. With each mobile upgrade cycle, customers expect better speed, performance, and latency, but above all, consistency. It’s clear that indoor 5G is already an issue, with more than half of UK users experiencing signal woes at home. Addressing indoor 5G will only become a more pressing issue for MNOs moving forward since mobile data usage is rising year-on-year.

The technological leap from 3G to 4G set high user expectations for 5G in terms of speed and consistency. To demonstrate 5G’s value to customers, operators need to ensure that the service offers tangible performance improvements. However, addressing indoor 5G coverage issues raises technical challenges as well as concerns about how to best manage potentially high infrastructure deployment costs.

Karim Yaici

Lead Industry Analyst for the Middle East and Africa at Ookla.

Why indoor 5G matters

Traditionally, mobile networks were primarily designed around outdoor coverage, ensuring people were connected when they were on the move and away from their wired telephone line. Yet, the way we use our phones has fundamentally changed, with 5G underscoring this usage shift towards high-speed data even more than previous generations.

In the home, where most users would rely on Wi-Fi in the past, ever-increasing mobile data speeds have encouraged them to steadily rely more on their mobile data. Many modern devices also allow mobile data to be used simultaneously with Wi-Fi to offer a more robust connectivity.

UK retailers are also increasingly relying on indoor connectivity to enhance their brick-and-mortar store experience through online ordering, in-app live offers, checkout-less storefronts and mobile-based customer loyalty schemes. Yet many UK retail locations such as shopping malls offer poor indoor 5G customer experiences. Customers are often forced to turn to unreliable and insecure public Wi-Fi, which often comes with notable risks.

Increasing demand for immediacy has also impacted large entertainment and sporting events. Breakdowns in communication have become common as thousands call their loved ones and send high-resolution videos and images of their favorite acts and teams.

What’s causing the indoor 5G issue?

Aside from the fact that most operators deploy their networks 'outside-in', indoor 5G coverage faces several other core challenges. It is generally difficult for radio signals to penetrate building walls and windows, with mid-band frequencies–the spectrum band predominantly used for 5G deployment–struggling in particular.

While the UK Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has warned that companies need to lessen the carbon impact of building construction, the increased use of environmentally friendly building materials, such as low-emission glass coating can make it even harder for 5G wireless signals. In urban centers, performance can also degrade in very tall buildings such as skyscrapers, as they are often taller than the cell towers that transmit 5G signals.

Another issue is population density. In busy locations, such as large offices, stadiums, and shopping malls, the large number of people using mobile devices can significantly strain a network already struggling to penetrate thick building walls.

What can be done to improve indoor 5G performance?

MNOs have several strategies to improve indoor 5G coverage, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Spectrum, for example, is an important factor influencing coverage and speed, as higher frequencies carry data faster, but have a shorter range, leading to inferior indoor service.

To address coverage issues, operators can opt to build taller towers that use a lower-band spectrum to cover a larger area. Measuring and tracking mobile performance, coverage, and signal measurement can help here, but the limited amount of spectrum available and the cost of deploying a new tower can make this an expensive approach.

Several solutions are more useful for specific use cases. For example, many of the largest arenas and stadiums around the world–including London’s Wembley Stadium–have opted to deploy a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) to improve coverage for spectators and staff. Antennas are disseminated around the venue to amplify 5G signals and provide consistent coverage and capacity. While DAS is an option for high-profile public spaces, it can be very expensive and complicated to deploy on a large scale.

For smaller areas, such as the floor of an office or apartment block, or local retail spaces, amplifiers, and small cells–low-power antennas providing localized coverage–can be a good option to boost signal. However, amplifiers can interfere with signals from macro cells and small cells are not cost-effective for multi-level office buildings.

For some businesses, deploying a private network is an option. Having a localised cellular network caters to specific operational needs, such as low-latency manufacturing. However, a company considering deploying its own network may need to acquire dedicated spectrum, which can be challenging and costly. Several of the largest MNOs now also offer private network services for businesses, but due to the inherent cost, their use is often restricted to larger organizations looking to support facilities such as IoT-driven smart factories.

Operators and commercial real estate owners must keep the indoor coverage quality front-of-mind. With mobile data usage increasing, and 80% of data being consumed indoors, it is clear that more focus should be placed on improving indoor cellular coverage across the UK. While several options for improving coverage do exist, each deployment approach should be evaluated in terms of cost, complexity, and suitability to address the specific needs of customers.

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Karim Yaici is the Lead Industry Analyst for the Middle East and Africa at Ookla. Before this, he held roles at Analysys Mason and Ovum.