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Five major challenges of 5G deployment

clock 8 minutes | 10 Dec 2021

5G deployment

5G has been touted as a game changer, with lightning-quick speed and lower latency. The only question is, how do we make this happen? The answers aren’t so simple. 5G infrastructure is one issue, for example. There are others, of course. Here are the top 5G issues and challenges facing operators:

1. 5G network development

Some of the infrastructure needed for 5G is already in place, such as macrocells, those oversized towers and masts already in use as telecommunications infrastructure. But for 5G to be 5G, we need to add small-cell technology in densely populated areas, which will increase network capacity.

5G network infrastructure requirements involve mmWave frequencies, which can only cover a short distance. Consequently, we need an ultra-dense grid. Small cells can go on lamp posts and the side of buildings, but to compensate for the range limitations, multiple antennas are necessary to serve a specific area. 5G network expansion largely depends on the ability to install these small-cell base stations. 5G deployment timelines will vary by operator, but everyone has a plan by now.

You can learn more about macrocells and small cells in our Guide to 5G small cells and macrocells.

To ensure that networks can provide the connections and high-data throughput, low latency and other features promised by 5G, testing with 5G technical KPIs has to happen. This isn’t a case of one-size fits all. 5G mmWave devices are used in mobile communication infrastructure, such as various radio frequency (RF) front-end module architectures and networking equipment. How are these to be tested and at what cost? This is why an in-depth 5G test-equipment procurement plan is absolutely necessary.

2. Costs

Adding 5G network infrastructure components means that more hardware and supporting software are necessary. A microcell costs around $200,000 to set up, while small cells come in at around $10,000 each. The plan for 5G to fulfil its promise is to install 60 small cells per square mile. On top of this are the costs to buy spectrum, configure, test and manage networks – and of course, those networks will need to be maintained and continuously updated.

Of course, 5G isn’t all together a brand-new technology. That is, many components of 5G technology build on 4G networks, which enables operators to approach their infrastructure as more of an evolution. This makes investment easier. By network refarming of their 3G spectrum, for instance, they can more easily upgrade the capacity of their 4G network, evolving to LTE features. This can put off having to make 5G investments right away.

Another approach is network sharing. According to consulting firm McKinsey, cost issues with 5G can be mitigated by sharing both active and passive network equipment. This can reduce the cost of network ownership for service providers by up to 30% while also improving network quality. This has become a fairly common set-up around the world. If three different operators share the same network, they can reduce the cost to deploy small cells by up to 50%.

3. 5G issues with backhaul

The incredibly dense small cells of 5G networks must support hundreds of gigabits of traffic from the core network through backhaul and current cellular system technology. The technology that helped meet LTE backhaul challenges is showing its age. Fiber replaced copper in many 4G installations, and its ideal for 5G backhaul – especially given its 10 Gbps connection rates and a maximum end-to-end round-trip delay (latency) of up to 1ms. There are other advantages to fiber in 5G, of course, which we urge you to learn about in Fiber optics and requirements in 5G infrastructure.

The point here is that more fiber has to be laid, and this is where deployment becomes a challenge, not to mention the extra cost. (According to a Deloitte study, a massive investment in fiber is necessary for the U.S. to reach its 5G potential – up to $150 billion.)

Money aside, laying fiber can take several months and even then, deploying fiber isn’t always possible, depending on the location of each small cell. 5G will therefore have to include wireless network expansion. If only it were that simple. Rain and other elements can interfere with the performance of wireless signal transmission, such as microwave and mmWave. Operators will have to either come up with a new idea or rely on both wired and wireless backhaul solutions.

4. Wave spectrum

Challenges with 5G include the ability to provide the necessary bandwidth to users with the devices capable of higher data rates. Using a frequency above six gigahertz enables networks to do this. However, high-frequencies entail problems with 5G. For starters, its range is short, which again, is why multiple small cells are needed to cover an area. Trees, buildings and other objects can obstruct signals, requiring cell towers to avoid signal path loss.

The good news is, multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) technology has shown to expand the capacity of 5G connectivity and address these signal path challenges. MIMO deployment’s design simplicity adds to its attractive features. Massive MIMO can service a multitude of mobile devices in tightly packed area at a single frequency. By implementing more antennas, a massive MIMO network resists signal interference and jamming.

However, line of sight will still be a 5G problem when high frequencies are involved, so most likely, we’ll need to get used to more base stations on top of roofs.

5. 5G security concerns

5G network security faces many challenges. For starters, much of 5G wireless telecommunications infrastructure is built on legacy technologies, such as 4G LTE networks. Any vulnerabilities already existing in those networks will threaten the security of 5G networks. With so much more data being relayed per unit time, thieves will find it worth their time to attempt data exfiltration.

More components are also involved in the implementation of 5G technology, which increases the number of access points and network edges. 5G technology infrastructure typically relies on cellular towers, beamforming, small cells, and cellular devices. This increases the digital attack surface. Also, many of these components lack physical security measures. Think of a small cell mounted on the side of a building, or on a tree. It’s vulnerable to physical attacks.

5G doesn't change the fundamentals of security. As with 4G, end users will still have to address 5G security issues to protect their assets. The difference now is, lapses in security for 5G mobile wireless networks can have catastrophic results – think autonomous driving and remote surgery.

That said, there are new vulnerabilities in 5G networks. Attacks on the 5G security protocol can cause network segments to crash and launch denial-of-service attacks. This network security flaw affects 5G network slicing, which enables operators to divide their 5G telecom network infrastructure into smaller portions. These portions are devoted to specific use cases. Examples include automotive, healthcare and critical infrastructure. Improvements are being made to the 5G security standard, but the final result as of this writing is not yet known.

Challenges for 5G base stations

Designing base stations will require you to consider several issues, which you can learn about here:

5G architecture and design

Thermal management

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