5G Challenges: Let’s Get Physical

Carl Weinschenk

Making 5G into a money-making reality is fraught with challenges. In most visions, the primary obstacle is figuring out how to harness very high-frequency wavelengths to achieve the glitzy speeds being promised.

It is a gamble that not all carriers are taking. T-Mobile plans to offer 5G but will use 600 MHz spectrum to do so. The tradeoff: The carrier will get to market more quickly because the spectrum is better understood and equipment is available. However, the top speeds are not as glitzy as 5G based on millimeter wavelength (mmWave) approaches.

Overall, the main telecom focus is on millimeter wavelength and the industry is grappling with the challenges. Panelists at the Big Communications Event held last week in Austin alluded to two of the most significant shortcomings, according to Light Reading. The problems are clear: As wavelengths get shorter, range decreases and sensitivity to obstacles, from walls to leaves to raindrops to cars, grows.

An issue that has not gotten much attention yet is whether subscribers using 5G for fixed wireless will be able to install the equipment themselves or will require professional assistance. If technicians must be dispatched to homes, the expected cost savings of 5G fixed wireless will be reduced. The costs of deploying 5G fixed wireless will become clear this year, according to the article.


Another practical problem with which engineers are wrestling is the physical nature of the equipment. The MIT Technology Review notes that 5G test equipment is “expensive, fragile and bulky” and can only be exposed to the elements for a few hours at a time. The gear, however, must be in the field extensively in order to collect data on how different forms of precipitation, types of trees and other obstacles affect propagation. AT&T has developed weather-proof test gear “the size of toaster ovens” to collect data. This data will help in the writing of specifications and development of 5G base stations, modems, smartphone chips and other elements.

Verizon is also active, and reported on its ongoing field testing at the 5G Innovation Summit late last month. RCR Wireless described the carrier’s setup, which includes indoor and outdoor 5G testing in a variety of clusters representing single family homes and multiple dwelling units. One takeaway: “Regular” walls show “promising results,” but the low emissivity glass found in high-efficiency windows presents a significant obstacle.

5G is more than a buzzword. It will be a useful tool in fixed wireless scenarios and potentially a game changer in mobile applications. An elephant in the room, however, is the simple fact that the laws of physics are stringent and must be obeyed. Much of the effort in the immediate future involves determining the precise nature of 5G and how to best harness mmWave and enabling technologies.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.


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