5G use cases to drive network densification

As capacity demands quadruple, planning needs to begin today

By Sanjay Dhawan, Vice President – New Business Technology and Operations, SBA Communications

Sanjay Dhawan is a member of WIA’s Innovation & Technology Council. Learn more about ITC here.

The most successful story in 5G to date is fixed wireless access. As of the first quarter of 2024, there were over 8.8 million 5G FWA users in the United States, and that number is growing at about one million users per quarter.

FWA is an interesting 5G use case because it consumes about 450 GB to 500 GB a month of data per FWA user, compared with 18 GB to 20 GB consumed by each mobile user. That is the equivalent of about 15 to 25 mobile users for every one fixed wireless user on the network. If you extrapolate that out, we are adding the equivalent of between 60 million and 100 million mobile data users every year to U.S. wireless networks. That’s a substantial sum.

We have built a lot of wireless capacity, and 5G has introduced advanced technologies, like Massive MIMO, which have multiplied the efficiency of available wireless spectrum to handle growing mobile data consumption. However, given the growth and runaway success of FWA, it won’t be long before we start to experience congestion. If all projections prove out, and we add four million fixed wireless users a year, the pipe will start filling up within a couple of years.

We expect capacity demands to quadruple every four years, and the transition from 4G to 5G increased capacity by over six times, considering the added spectrum and Massive MIMO technologies. That means by 2026, we will have used up a large portion of the extra capacity 5G buildouts gave us, especially in urban areas.

This is a challenge the industry needs to get ahead of now, as network planning, siting, approvals and construction processes can take years. Additional spectrum would be one ideal solution to solving the increased data traffic demands, but there does not appear to be any new spectrum coming to the mobile industry in the near future. Hardware upgrades – including FDD MIMO – will bring only incremental improvements to networks in the absence of substantial new spectrum availability.

As such, network densification becomes the primary opportunity to increase capacity to meet growing data demand. As a communications infrastructure provider, the questions SBA considers are where and when the densification is needed and what are the wireless operator’s requirements that map to infrastructure needs. While some of the densification needs can be addressed by existing infrastructure facilities such as towers and rooftops, there is likely to be a portion that requires new infrastructure facilities, be it tower sites, small cells, rooftops or other types of facilities. If infill sites are needed, should they be built at 100 feet vs. 150 feet?  Would such sites need to support all frequency bands or only mid-bands and mmWave? The answers will vary from application to application.

Building a communications facility is a complex process with extensive zoning and permitting requirements and can take two to three years from planning to bringing a wireless carrier on air.  New sites require fiber, power and approvals. Building a new site in a rural area is relatively easier because the community wants coverage, but suburban and urban communities are more protective of aesthetics and sites may need to blend in with the natural landscape, which sometimes can be addressed with concealed monopines and monopalms. All of these factors add complexity to the process, so if we want to densify our grid to meet demand expectations for 2026 and beyond, we need to start thinking about it today.

These network capacity improvements will benefit applications other than FWA. 5G standalone core networks – or True 5G – are finally coming to fruition this year, bringing capabilities like local switching, network slicing, lower latency and orchestration to the table. In addition, the Open API initiative is starting to gain momentum, which sets the basis for a 5G App store

The finance industry is an early adopter of 5G-enabled tools incorporating capabilities like authentication via phones and mobile devices. Automotive is another industry that will benefit greatly from improved data capacity. We have 16 million new vehicles (cars, SUVs, etc.) added in the United States every year, and applications such as intelligent transportation systems and connected cars, including in-vehicle entertainment, advanced mapping and autonomous driving, are gaining attention.

Advanced automotive applications may require 100 GB per hour or more of data, according to some predictions. In fact, McKinsey predicts that the total value created by 5G connected-car use cases could reach more than $550 billion by 2030, up from $64 billion in 2020.

Another area gaining wide adoption is around predictive and generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is starting to play a bigger role in everything we do. These and other emerging use cases will put greater requirements on the network in terms of data volumes, speeds, latency and reliability.  

Rather than the network enabling these types of services, these services will influence changes to the network infrastructure. Additional considerations will come into the network planning process. Does the intersite distance need to come down from 1 to 1.5 miles in urban areas to 0.5 to 0.8 miles and require antennas to be deployed at 90 to 120 feet above ground? Will the sites need to have more cloud capabilities and hence evolve from ruggedized telecom cabinets to micro edge data centers, possibly with local break-out in some cases?  Do we need to have enhanced security at some of these facilities? How can we make these new sites blend in with the environment to get greater acceptance from the communities?

We are on the cusp of experiencing innovation in use cases across industries and at a wider scale. Our networks, which span not only radio access and core networks, but also the infrastructure consisting of tower and rooftop and facilities, fiber and power, need to be in place to support the new use cases and the requirements on the network that they place in terms of latency, data volume and speeds, reliability and security. The time to begin preparing for a mobile-data-driven future is now.