5G is seeing its first limited runs in cities around the world. And when new network tech gets out of the lab and into the field, real-world testing reveals some of the surprises that have been hiding under the surface.
There are at least five 5G hurdles that commonly crop up in work with operators, device makers, network equipment manufacturers and city planners.
New mobile tech always brings new challenges. The key is understanding what needs to happen next to keep the journey to mobile’s next-generation network on track for cities and the surrounding regions that depend on them.
1. New 5G Signals Make Weather Forecasting Foggy
5G will largely run on 20- to 60-gigahertz frequencies, which are being auctioned off right now. This concerns the weather community because water vapor is measured using radio microwaves that need to operate at the 23.8GHz frequency.
Too many cells in one area could generate too much noise, which could cause 5G to interfere with the frequency. The dialogues and controversies continue between the weather community and regulators such as the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. on what an appropriate resolution looks like.
It may very well come down to the FCC enforcing lower power limits from millimeter wave transmitters, which interact with the radio microwaves. That could spell trouble for operators who want to generate a longer range of coverage with their transmitters. Even if the FCC enforces new rules and a logical buffer between 23 and 24 adjacent bands proves to be enough, the bigger concern could be 24GHz itself. The entire span is already filled with traffic, and the nearest open neighboring frequency — amateur radio — could be the scariest one of all. The bottom line is that this problem will require a surgical solution that cities and surrounding communities need to test extensively in advance of widespread deployments.
2. City Planners Say No to Overweight Antennas
Operators have been working with cities to re-evaluate early 5G antenna form factors. In one particular incident in Canada where initial 5G testing was taking place, operators were looking to reinforce a larger antenna configuration (64 transmit antennas and 64 receive antennas) to support 5G. But they soon found out that bigger would not be the answer as building roofs started to buckle, causing city planners to ask all parties to go back to the drawing board.
These unnecessary, extra costs and delays can potentially cripple a city’s progress toward 5G. Antenna manufacturers are now tasked with designing smaller antennas that can deliver the same capabilities and benefits found in their larger siblings — no small feat this early in 5G’s lifecycle.
3. 5G Field Testing May Lag Where You Least Expect It
Making 5G’s ambitious use cases a reality will require navigating back-end complexity through extensive testing that includes real-world field scenarios. What’s played out in the city of Palo Alto, Calif., is perhaps surprising given its strong technology DNA, but other cities around the country could find themselves in similar situations.
Palo Alto’s City Council and architectural review board have received countless complaints from residents about the designated placements of new cell sites, forcing government officials to decelerate the permit approval process. With fewer cell sites up and running, tech companies that want to test innovative 5G use cases on their own turf are running into roadblocks. On the other hand, cities with more relaxed policies have an opportunity to become 5G testing hotbeds.
4. One Antenna Size Does Not Fit All for Next-Gen Smartphones
As older mobile network tech is phased out, the spectrum must be “refarmed” to make room for the new. Of course, this doesn’t happen at the flip of a switch, and timetables around the country will vary. While this creates headaches for the whole ecosystem, device makers are feeling the most pain as they cram more and more antennas into handsets in an attempt to offer coverage for all networks in all regions.
They are coming to terms with the fact that they’ll need to reconfigure the number of antennas placed in each device based on that device’s final destination. This is hardly an ideal solution for an industry already grappling with enough supply chain logistics challenges.
5. Most Services Are Not Ready to Deliver 5G Performance
There was a time when app developers were pushing mobile networks way past their limits. You may recall that when Netflix started streaming video to handsets in 2010, networks all but buckled. But as 5G remains poised to offer immersive video, virtual reality and more, very few apps are ready to deliver superior performance. In my recent testing, I am finding that most popular consumer apps are optimized for 4G LTE and not much more.
Though 5G deployments and handsets are limited, it’s surprising not to see more developers wanting to be early stars capitalizing on unprecedented performance capabilities.
Given the hype and soaring expectations around 5G, everyone in the value chain will want to test early and often to make sure they get as much right as possible out of the gate. Some of these early hiccups are par for the course, and now is the time to work out the kinks. Yes, 5G will necessitate more over-the-air (OTA) testing than originally anticipated, but OTA is critical for the evaluation of end-user devices and user behaviors.
The more the mobile industry knows now, the fewer surprises there will be down the road for cities around the country, making for a smoother and faster 5G journey.