5G technology is poised to enable innovation across cities and businesses, but I believe that its rollout will be very different than the transition from 3G to 4G. While the fourth-generation network was like replacing an old model, I expect that 5G will be more targeted in its deployment and rely on LTE and other emerging wireless technologies, such as CBRS, to fill in the gaps.

 Why 5G Doesn’t Need To Be An All-Encompassing ‘Silver Bullet’

As we expand 5G, there is no need to completely replace 4G/LTE networks because they should instead complement each other. When 4G was the new and exciting technology, 3G networks had severe speed and latency limitations regarding applications most consumers consider table stakes now, including video streaming and livestreaming. In that sense, 4G/LTE represented a whole new world for the majority of the population.

Leading a wireless connectivity solutions company, I’ve seen firsthand how the “old” technology still has highly important and relevant use cases in this new 5G era. It can deliver adequate speeds for most casual mobile phone users across the nation and enable us to enjoy the simple luxuries that 3G was incapable of delivering. LTE is also sufficient for modern public safety applications and can support most IoT use cases with the exception of mission-critical IoT implementations in smart cities.

Additionally, the frequency bands used by all major carriers for 4G/LTE can traverse longer distances than 5G to deliver cost-effective nationwide coverage that consumers have come to expect. Conversely, 5G mmWave frequency bands delivering high speed and ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC) travels much shorter distances and should be considered a “specialized” network for specific use cases in dense urban areas, such as mission-critical IoT, scalable VR/AR use cases and supercomputing.

Emerging technologies, such as CBRS will also have their own place in the 5G era by enabling private LTE networks, which not only are sufficient for providing satisfactory coverage in compact areas, but also keep sensitive data in-house. As an example, a sports stadium might leverage a CBRS network for its back-end administrative work to protect its critical data and also build a 5G network using mmWave frequency bands to deliver URLLC guest experiences, including seamless live streaming, projection, VR and many others that were never available (or highly limited) with LTE.

Limitations Of 5G: Hotspots For Innovation Over Blanket Coverage

As mentioned earlier, one of the reasons 5G may not provide the same blanket coverage of 4G is due to limitations of the distances that mmWave frequency bands can travel. MmWave provides the enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) and URLLC that consumers equate to 5G, but it won’t extend very far and is easily disrupted by walls and environmental interference.

This is why using a distributed antenna system (DAS) and repeaters for indoor usage, or many small cells for outdoors, is critical to extending coverage across longer distances. As a comparison, 5G mmWave signals can travel uninterrupted from a base station for less than a mile. This means that building out a nationwide 5G mmWave network akin to 4G isn’t feasible because of how many additional base stations would be required to support it.

How 5G Can Leverage Complementary Tech

These challenges are why enterprises, building owners and cities looking to build 5G networks must get increasingly smart about how they view wireless options and capabilities and apply them to specific use cases. In most scenarios, I expect the configuration to be a combination of CBRS, 5G and LTE that will cost-effectively work together to build out future networks.

Autonomous vehicle infrastructure within smart cities, for example, could be a combination of 5G/LTE networks. LTE frequency bands can travel longer distances, meaning it would be ideal for over-the-air (OTA) and location information transmissions, but 5G with ultra-low latency would be important for real-time collision response. Even so, that would require additional infrastructures, such as placing base stations along highways and streets.

For manufacturing, 5G would be able to power autonomous robotic workforces and provide near-instantaneous data center interconnection to revolutionize supply and demand but might leverage LTE or CBRS for the administrative part of their factories.

This same combination of old and new wireless technologies is applicable to public safety as well. LTE will likely remain the backbone of these networks that connect first responders, but 5G will enable new public safety technologies, such as Z-axis, which allows first responders to determine the precise location of people inside high-rise buildings.

The 5G era of connectivity is bound to be one of collaboration and not a replacement. The wireless landscape is becoming more complex and nuanced, requiring an elevated level of understanding from businesses and building owners. With all the different wireless options it’s important to have a network backbone, such as a modular DAS system, that can improve coverage and density for all frequency bands involved in a modern telecom ecosystem from 3G through 5G to keep options open as new use cases arise.