Addressing the 5G Paradox: Indoor Offload Options for Skyrocketing Data Traffic

The mobile-first mindset borne of the large-scale deployment of fourth-generation LTE technology is poised to expand exponentially as the high bandwidth and low latency of emerging fifth-generation (5G) networks spur mobile data traffic to new highs. Not only will people be increasingly connected to each other and the world around them through a variety of devices, but everything from appliances to cars to industrial machines will also be connected and interconnected through the Internet of Things.

5G networks are expected to provide significant economic and efficiency gains in the markets where they are deployed, through smart factory and smart city applications, autonomous vehicles, telemedicine and many other applications designed to leverage wireless connectivity. As such, 5G cellular networks will also bring a paradox once deployed – the massive amount of new connections that will be available could overwhelm networks once billions of diverse devices connect to them. The FCC is working to free up new spectrum to address this paradox, but wireless carriers will continue to need offloading techniques to keep the macrocellular network operating efficiently.

The Wireless Infrastructure Association’s Innovation & Technology Council studied this trend and developed a white paper addressing the changing network demands, potential technology solutions and the interests of each of the stakeholders. “The 5G Paradox: The Need for More Offloading Options in the Next-Generation Wireless Era,” is authored by Greg Najjar, Advanced RF Technologies Inc.; Mark Reynolds, the University of New Mexico; Don Bach, Boingo Wireless; and Luke Lucas, T-Mobile USA.

The marketplace is accustomed to offloading today. Indoor Wi-Fi networks help alleviate data congestion and endeavor to provide a seamless customer experience both indoors and outdoors. In many cases, the transition between Wi-Fi and cellular connection happens automatically, without end user intervention or even awareness of how they are connected to the wireless network. This paradigm will become even more necessary as the world evolves to 5G. The ability to leverage a variety of licensed and unlicensed spectrum across multiple frequencies using various technologies, along with new techniques to increase overall transmission bandwidth will be essential to meeting the demand for mobile connectivity.

Several technologies exist or are emerging to address cellular traffic offload onto small, localized networks. Three primary options are Wi-Fi, Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and 5G. Each provides different benefits and limitations for the various stakeholders in the wireless ecosystem, which include enterprises, service providers, third-party operators and integrators which serve both enterprises and service providers, and original equipment manufacturers.

Enterprise customers are likely familiar with Wi-Fi technology as they have used it to improve mobility in buildings for data applications and for voice connectivity via Voice over Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi in the enterprise also supports the growing need to support personal employee devices, also known as Bring Your Own Device or BYOD. But enterprises may also turn their focus to CBRS to fill in coverage gaps. Through a novel shared spectrum model, CBRS may be able to provide enhanced signal and data throughput in indoor and corporate-campus outdoor environments. 5G also will likely augment the enterprise environment, as higher bandwidth and lower latency allow IoT devices and systems to be automated, and asset management and sensory devices to create efficiencies and enhance security.

Service providers will continue to embrace Wi-Fi as a well-established, familiar offloading technique. New Wi-Fi releases support hard handovers and roaming. While Wi-Fi is highly localized and not ubiquitous in rural areas, the technology is easily expandable where backhaul is available and is inexpensive to deploy. Service providers are also keeping a close eye on CBRS as dual cellular/CBRS chipsets are expected to be included in devices in the near future. CBRS offers carriers roughly 150 megahertz of spectrum for LTE capacity and has some advantages over Wi-Fi, including security, emergency calling, SMS support and roaming. 5G will dramatically shift the wireless network architecture for service providers. The recent acquisition of high-frequency bands between 1 GHz and 3 GHz will result in smaller wavelength propagation characteristics and necessitate a smaller coverage area. These dense networks will create a focus on virtualization and edge processing.

OEMs are well acquainted with Wi-Fi and are continuously upgrading network an end-user equipment as the technology advances. This momentum is likely to continue as offloading demands grow. Meanwhile, the CBRS ecosystem is buzzing with interest and activity around development of chipsets to support CBRS, first in modem chipsets for IoT and then for end-user devices and smartphones. On the 5G front, OEMs will be instrumental in the adoption of 5G network deployments. A close connection between service providers and equipment manufacturers will be needed to achieve proper network performance. Key 5G requirements to support virtualization and densification design approaches will re-define traditional methods of equipment architecture and change network equipment deployment strategies.

5G is almost here and it will change everything from tiny chipsets to macrocellular networks to the mobile needs and habits of millions of people and billions of machines. Every stakeholder in the wireless ecosystem will be affected by the 5G paradox and the enormous growth of mobile data traffic. Enterprise customers, service providers, OEMs and third-party integrators all have an interest and a stake in the various technologies that will be available to address the coming wave of connectivity demand.