Streaming Video, Automation Applications Expected to Drive Demand for Indoor 5G Networks

Two important wireless evolutions are on the horizon, and their paths are set to cross. 5G technology promises greater bandwidth and lower latency, which is expected to spur a variety of new applications from connected vehicles to telehealth services to connected IOT functionalities. Meanwhile, the importance of reliable indoor coverage is increasingly important as consumers and enterprises alike rely on wireless devices for personal and business uses in all environments, including inside their homes, offices, hotels and other venues and facilities they visit. 

Why is indoor wireless coverage essential for commercial real estate and how will these networks evolve to 5G? A Connect (X): All Access panel hosted by Rich Berliner, CEO of Connected Real Estate magazine, explored this topic during a session titled “How 5G is Changing Your In-Building Infrastructure.“ Participants in the panel included Art King, Director of Enterprise Services at Corning; Lisa Lombino, Vice President, Engineering and Deployment at American Tower; Ray LaChance, Co-Founder & CEO of ZenFi Networks; and Piyush Raj, Managing Director, Connected Venues at SBA Communications. 

The panel is available to view in its entirety at 

Panelists explored a variety of topics including what landlords need to do to prepare for 5G in their buildings, what will drive the need for 5G in buildings and how new spectrum opportunities like Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) might come into play. In addition to traditional wireless elements, optical fiber is expected to be crucial to support the demands of 5G networks. How much fiber will be needed? 

What we found with most of the cable plant is you’re going to need long term much more than you actually think today,” said King. “You look at the cost of laborcore drilling, conduits and all the things that have to happen if you are coming in from outdoors, the permits and the things necessary to come from an underground vault into your buildingit’s more practical to have double, maybe even triple, the amount of fibers that you need today to prep for the future because it has to live the lifespan of the building. You might have to have 20-30 years of capacity that you are putting in on day one and that keeps you from having to bring in labor and construction and revisit an undersized riser 10 years in the future. 

ZenFi Networks is a regional fiber operator covering areas of New York City that up until recently has focused on the problem of outdoor mobile densification. With the increasing importance of indoor coverage and capacity, fiber networks could evolve to a new architecture that addresses both fronthaul and backhaul requirements, said LaChance. 

“The way the evolving network I believe will look is you’ll take a portfolio of 10-20 buildings and aggregate 5 million to 10 million square feet,” said LaChance. “You’ll do the same infrastructure within the building that you would do if the base station were at the building itselfyou wire up the building, you put in your air interfaces, place your radios, aggregate them in one spot in the buildingbut then you bring them back either from a fronthaul service or circuit back to an edge collocation. At that edge collocation, you put all the baseband processing that used to be in the building out serving 10 or 20 buildings and you aggregate your capital spend and your opex. All the carriers meet you at this aggregation POP (point of presence)they don’t have to go to each one of the buildings.” 

Carriers have been promoting 5G heavily in recent months and building owners are interested in 5G as a way to revolutionize the user experience for tenants and visitors to their properties. In particular, carriers see indoor 5G as an opportunity to increase revenues via consumer and enterprise LTE services, however they are faced with the challenge of ensuring they provide 5G in a way that doesn’t degrade the 4G experience, said Lombino. New spectrum opportunities, including C-band, CBRS and millimeter wave, may help address that challenge. 

“The majority of the carriers existing spectrum is really utilized quite fully through that 4G experience, so what we are seeing both outdoors and indoors is the carriers looking to utilize new spectrum to roll out 5G,” said Lombino. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some of these carriers make a really active push for the upcoming auctions, specifically the C-band auction that’s coming to play next year that is non-shared spectrum that carriers can purchase, and I think there’s also been some hype for carriers and non-carriers alike in the CBRS shared spectrum. If the carriers can get that spectrum at a fairly reasonable, cheaper megahertz per pop price, I think that’s going to be another tool that they’ll put in their toolbelt to bring 5G indoors, because both CBRS and C-bandmidband spectrumwork really well indoors from a penetration perspective and it gives them much more megahertz to aggregate their spectrum for high bandwidth consumption in the indoor space. 

Ultimately, it’s not hype that will drive 5G indoors, but the applications the technology will enable and end users will demand. How quickly 5G is deployed indoors will vary, said SBA’s Raj. He noted venues like stadiums that have high bandwidth requirements might need 5G as soon as a year from now while other buildings and facilities might be adequately served by 4G technology for several years to come 

If I am a real estate owner, why do I care about 5G? The only way I care about it is if there are applications that can not be done on 4G,” said Raj. “For example, there has been a lot of talk that campuses are starting delivery robots for groceries and food, and one of the big challenges with those robots is they consume a lot of bandwidth and they actually dump a lot of data onto the network. Those might drive the need for a 5G network because 4G might not have enough bandwidth. Then you talk about mission critical applications, like hospitals now with COVID-19. The biggest challenge they are facing is the supply chain, getting medicines. They are talking about can they use drones, but when the drones land, they need low latency to respond. Those might require 5G very quickly because 4G cannot meet the latency part. 

Raj pointed to 4K streaming video for telehealth and virtual conferencing applications as primary potential drivers of indoor 5G demand. Current events also could play into demand for 5G applications now and in the future.  

In the COVID world, thermal imaging, thermal sensors to measure temperature, that’s another one that requires cameras,” he said. “I think the healthcare sector is going to be next with telemedicine. That’s going to evolve faster than we thought because of all the things happening now.