5G is the new buzzword in the industry. Operators, governments, towercos, vendors and all other stakeholders across the telecom industry are preparing the ground for the launch of 5G services. However, this task has its own set of challenges. There are various infrastructural and technological requirements that have to be taken care of before the industry goes into the 5G deployment phase.

At the recently held virtual conference, “Telecom Infrastructure in India”, organised by tele.net, representatives from Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio shared their views on the key infrastructure-related requirements for 5G roll-out, industry readiness for 5G, the key challenges in rolling out infrastructure and the way forward…

Fibre takes centre stage

Limited fibre roll-out is one of the key concerns facing the industry today. It is getting consumed as it is getting laid. The demand for fibre is being driven not just by mobile, but also FTTH services. Over and above this, the demand for fibre is expected to be driven to new levels once 5G kicks in, as one of the key requirements of 5G is fiberisation. Transitioning from 4G to 5G will essentially be a story of fibre.

At present, under the 4G scenario, towers typically have to be mounted with a 4T4R kind of antenna panel. The speeds are around 100 Mbps of downlink and 10-15 Mbps of uplink. This is what these antenna panels have to handle. So, this amount of capacity is what has to be handled in the backhaul. This determines the fibre requirements of towers in a 4G scenario.

However, once we transition to 5G, the mid-haul approach comes into play. In a 5G scenario, the data rate that has to be handled increases drastically. Typically, this is 10X of the data that is being handled currently over spectrum. So, almost 30 Gbps is what has to be minimally handled in the midhaul. From 100 Mbps in a 4G scenario, the industry would have to move to 30 Gbps of data handling capacity in the 5G scenario. Consequently, the amount of fibre that needs to be deployed will also increase by leaps and bounds.

Further, this 10x increase in the fibre requirement per cell only takes into consideration the demand from towers. However, once we factor in other businesses such as FTTH, the actual fibre demand would be much more.

Operators have said that going forward, while transitioning from 4G to 5G, 60 per cent or more of their efforts will be directed towards deploying fibre, both for backhaul and midhaul.

New dimensions to towers

There is another critical challenge when introducing 5G – the weight of the antenna panel that has to be mounted on towers. Typically, the weight of an LTE antenna panel is around 5 kg. However, once you transition to 5G, the weight of each antenna panel will be anywhere from 5-10 kg to about 60 kg, recording a 6x increase.

As such, if an existing tower infrastructure accommodates 4-5 of these antenna panels, each weighing about 5-10 kg, it is going to be highly challenging for operators to mount 4-5 of the new type of antennas (required in 5G), weighing 60-70 kg each, alongside the existing ones. Consequently, the size and power requirements of towers will increase by a huge margin.

In order to address this, tower companies and individual operators will have to ramp up their infrastructure as the existing infrastructure will not fly.

This challenge has multiple dimensions to it. In order to address this, either the industry will have to come up with stronger towers or increase the number of towers deployed by a huge margin. Alternatively, towercos can opt for new technologies, which can bring the weight of antenna panels down.

Real estate requirements

Over and above the issue of fibre, there are other requirements as well that will play a critical role in determining the success of 5G. Since the deployment of 5G infrastructure will entail the adoption of a mid-haul approach, operators will have to acquire real estate, not just for towers but also for aggregated cloud entities within the city. The magnitude of this challenge, however, will depend on where in the city the site has to be acquired, as it is not very easy to acquire sites in a built-up city.

Challenges from technology point of view

Operators are of the view that these are still early days for 5G indoor coverage because there are way too many technologies that are available on the table currently. On the one hand, there is a stock of host-neutral deployments and on the other, there is cloud radio architecture deployment.

While countries such as the UK have a formal regulation just to handle the host neutral business, such guidelines do not exist in India today. At present, there is a lot of talk about private networks and host neutral does make sense from a private deployment perspective. However, it is yet to be seen as to how this will take off or what is the mechanism in which it will coexist with the existing infrastructure.

As far as cloud radio architecture deployment is concerned, there will be a lot of demand for intermediate cloud sites. At present, we have cloud infrastructure only for the core network and this typically entails having 4-7 cloud infrastructure sites across the country. However, once we start talking about radio level cloudification, the number of site requirement jumps from 4-7 cloud infrastructure sites to 100-200 across the country.

Focus on enterprise business

The enterprise business is a key segment and enterprise IT networks are a reality. Going forward, there will be more and more integration of cellular networks with enterprises. It may not necessarily be in terms of small cells itself, but it may be in terms of edge cloud sharing. And, most of the operators are picking up on what it takes to deploy edge networks because they already have cloud networks. It is a fair spin-off from the existing infrastructure even for an operator.

Key recommendations and the way forward

The industry is yet to see how small cell deployment and indoor coverage will take place in the 5G scenario. Also, how towercos will scale up and how operators will enable towercos to scale up to meet these additional requirements will be something to watch out for.

Going forward, if 5G is to become a reality, the lack of fibre is a key issue that would need to be resolved. Operators and the government need to work collaboratively to address the fibre challenge. Operators are of the view that there is a need to pool in fibre assets. The monetisation of the government’s fibre assets is the way to go.

Smart cities have enough fibre infrastructure and utilities such as Powergrid and Railtel also have their own inter- and intra-city fibre infrastructure. All the smart cities and utilities should come up with a common platform for their fibre infrastructure, which can then be leveraged by operators. Further, the government and private players need to work together to minimise the per km cost and the per bandwidth cost.

Tower companies should also do backhaul fiberisation of their sites and make all towers fibre ready so that operators can minimise the time spent by them in backhaul fiberisation.

Of course, issues related to right of way (RoW) must also be ironed out. In each town and city, there are large and often different kinds of permissions that have to be taken before laying any kind of fibre infrastructure. This is a major dampener and negatively impacts the industry sentiment to invest in the development of telecom infrastructure.

Operators are also of the view that wireless backhaul is one of the major areas that the country as a whole will have to explore going forward. Addressing wireless backhaul issues will be key to mitigating some of the pressures on the fibre infrastructure that most operators face today.