The 5G Game has Begun: What’s in the Industry’s Playbook?

By Andy Penley, Vice President, Wireless Solutions, ZenFi Networks

This year, the average mobile device is using on average 14 gigabytes of data per month, a 583-percent increase since 2014 when the average was 2.4 gigabytes. Total data consumption in North America in 2020 is expected to top 6 billion gigabytes. This growth in mobile traffic demand has driven mobile network operators to develop new methods of providing access to content, and the latest evolution of mobile networks is the addition of the 5G layer.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of mobile network standards meant to deliver ultra-low latency, multi-gigabit speeds, increased availability, more reliability and massive network capacity.  What does that mean?  It means that everything from critical communications among first responders to video streaming and gaming will be better, faster and more reliable.

It will allow users to instantaneously download large video files and live stream videos which, combined, currently make up an estimated 75 percent of mobile data traffic. It will also become instrumental to many critical industries such as healthcare, education and frontline services that will be able to access valuable information instantly.

First responders could share smart building floor plans and room temperatures to firefighters in the event of a fire.  Police will have expanded public-safety capabilities through enhanced technologies.  Rescue workers will have access real-time video footage from aerial and remote locations during a natural disaster.

It also means access to teachers across the world, jobs in other cities, and to the best surgeons without having to travel. In short, it means lowering the cost of access to essential, life-enhancing (and in many cases lifesaving) services currently available only to those who have the means to travel or the ability to move throughout zip codes.

How do we get there?

To create these critical communications networks, carriers are employing many techniques. Some are purely virtual, while others are physical network architecture changes.

One of the most important steps in meeting the 5G standard is having access to additional spectrum with which providers can add network antenna locations by deploying small, low-power cell sites connected to local hubs by fiber-optic cables. This is commonly referred to as mobile densification.

Traditional mobile architectures employ large macro sites with powerful transmitters that cover large areas. We have all seen these mobile towers dotting the landscape today. New network architecture relies more heavily on densely deployed, low-power sites commonly referred to as small cells.  These sites can be located on many types of infrastructure, but the most pervasive infrastructure used are streetlight and utility poles because they are widespread, physically accessible for the most part, and provide ubiquitous coverage in densely populated areas.

Outdoor small cells are not a novel idea. According to Small Cell Forum, by December 2017 there were already more than 301,000 outdoor small cells deployed worldwide. To meet capacity demands, that number is likely to grow to 2.7 million by 2025.

What are the risks?

Due to the proximity and high visibility of these sites, the public has become concerned about possible health risks. Much of the 5G traffic will ride on the same radio waves as the Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology currently used today.

These sites emit very low energy waves. ZenFi Networks recently performed a field study to measure the electromagnetic emissions from a 20-watt small cell transmitting from 9.5 feet above the ground at 2.5 GHz, which is a frequency range expected to be used for 5G. The measured power level was .017 mW/cm².  This is 00.017 percent of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) uncontrolled area emissions limit for public exposure.

Additional spectrum that will be used for 5G will be at a much higher frequency than those previously utilized. The higher frequency waves transmitted at low power levels will not travel as far nor be able to penetrate as well as the traditional lower band waves, so it must be deployed densely. Because this spectrum at these power levels is not very resilient, and does not penetrate surfaces very well, it does not pose incremental health concerns.

But don’t take my word for it. The utilization of radio frequencies is at the sole discretion of the FCC, which tightly regulates the amount of electromagnetic emissions the general public can be exposed to from these small cell sites. Radio frequency limits set by the FCC are based upon thousands of peer- reviewed studies that have been conducted over the past century by numerous independent scientific organizations. These limits were first officially adopted by the FCC in 1996 but were studied and reaffirmed on a unanimous and bipartisan basis in 2019.

Generally, these small cell sites are at less than 1 percent of the FCC exposure limit for the general public. Therefore, the facts and data conclude that there are no incremental public health risks associated with these sites.

The challenge  

The most difficult step in the construction of these networks is obtaining municipal right-of-way consent. This is the process by which local governments — cities, towns, boroughs — grant utilities the right to place wireless facilities on infrastructure such as light poles in the public right of way. This is typically achieved by submitting an application to the local government for its review and approval. The FCC has ruled that the local governments have 90 days to decide on each application.

Sadly, the scientifically proven safety and readily available data that confirm both the safety and the positive impacts of these deployments has been largely ignored or misinterpreted by some communities. The same users who demand high capacity mobile connectivity often fight to stop the deployment of small cells. Many times, these fears are based on hearsay, unreliable commentary not based on data, the lack of education based on facts and the failure to consider the benefits this technology has and will have for all walks of humanity.

Especially during these difficult times, where virtual connectivity has become so critical, we as an industry and as a collective community need to bridge the divide and help the public understand the benefits and lack of safety concerns around these networks. Educating and informing the public has become just as important as the technology advances that make 5G possible. Without it, the jobs, the economic output, the promise of access and opportunities now and for the future, all but vanish.  We may be in the early innings of 5G, but we need to start putting some runs on the board.

Andy Penley is Vice President, Wireless Solutions, at ZenFi Networks where he oversees all aspects of wireless solutions sales and customer management for the company. In this role, Penley applies his leadership and proven industry expertise to design and deliver innovative communication infrastructure solutions for customers searching to deploy wireless applications in the New York and New Jersey metro markets. As a regional leader in fronthaul fiber infrastructure, Penley is responsible for continued innovation and product design within the wireless market.  Penley is a mobile technology industry veteran with many years of experience managing teams that design, build and operate complex, constantly evolving mobile communication networks for large mobile network operators and neutral host infrastructure providers. His expertise makes him an authority on the deployment of small cell technology and the infrastructure of 5G networks. 

ZenFi Networks is an innovative communications infrastructure company focused on enabling fiber optic network, network edge colocation and wireless siting solutions in the NY-NJ metro region. As the area’s most experienced communications infrastructure builder, ZenFi Networks has an unparalleled reputation for efficiently architecting and delivering solutions that enable mobile network operators, wholesale telecommunications providers and large enterprise clients. With its purpose-built C-RAN infrastructure, ZenFi Networks is at the forefront of network architecture innovation and a critical part of the mobile and wholesale telecommunications ecosystems in one of the biggest