November 10, 2022

5G’s Maturity Signals Changing Priorities

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Consumers are eager for 5G to move beyond the hype and deliver promised speeds but there are many other factors for carriers to consider as they look to scale their networks cost-effectively. There has been much discussion of the different characteristics of high, mid and low band 5G with respect to penetration, propagation and throughput. These differences emphasize two key metrics, power consumption and spectral efficiency, and are reasons that mid band has become the de facto gold standard of RF for building out 5G networks.

Power consumption

Mobile carriers project between $5 to $6 billion of CAPEX this year on 5G deployments, and that’s not including the billions they’ve already allocated to the spectrum licenses. With record 5G costs expected in 2022, it’s critical to keep ongoing OPEX expenditures like power consumption in check. Beyond just cost, it’s a major environmental concern as reducing energy consumption increasingly becomes a hot button topic among governments and citizens. This is a primary reason why carriers are in favor of mid band frequencies like C-band or 2.5GHz.

But why? High band mmWave 5G strictly in a cost-per-bit comparison has less power consumption than mid band by about 25% per three-sector cell site and also offers more throughput and better data rates. However, that is a misleading metric when considering a carrier would require nearly 4 times the amount of cell sites for mmWave given its very poor travel distance and easily obstructable signal. This doesn’t even include the additional costs of the other network elements from site lease, antenna mounts, support and maintenance, and software upgrades over time. Therefore, it would take a great deal more power to operate mmWave in production versus testing. While the investment and enthusiasm of mmWave has died down from a couple years ago, it is likely that once 5G networks are deployed it will be used in heavy traffic areas to improve network densification and for specific in-building use cases.

Spectral efficiency

Spectral efficiency refers to the maximum number of bits of data that can be transmitted to a specified number of users per second while maintaining an acceptable quality of service. It takes on a new level of importance in 5G because of its mission critical use cases. It was certainly an aspirational benchmark during the 4G/LTE era, but not nearly as critical when the primary use was to simply ensure people could stay connected on cell phones or surf the Internet. Achieving 256 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) at all times, which is excellent signal quality, is now a necessity for 5G.

Beyond the business application importance of spectral efficiency, it is critical to help manage the ever-rising volume of mobile data traffic that continues to explode year-over-year. According to Ericsson, the average monthly mobile data usage in North America is expected to reach 52GB per smartphone in 2027, with a 90% 5G subscription penetration representing the most of any region. Mid-band is ideal for improving spectral efficiency as it combines the best of signal strength, distance and throughput. Newer technologies, such as Massive MIMO and beamforming, will also help improve in this area as well.

While there are many other considerations and network elements that can alter power consumption and spectral efficiency, it is clear that mid band 5G remains the most important RF for carriers to build out their networks in 2022. But the telecom industry is fluid right now and can pivot to different bands and technologies as new innovations or networking methods surface. It’s important enterprises and building owners looking to bring 5G indoors consider a wireless system capable of supporting all 5G bands to avoid the need for a rip and replace further down the line.