The United States seeks to have 5G available to the masses by 2025. Here’s where we are today and where the industry is going.

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Deployment of 5G promises a network of connectivity with greatly improved latency and downtime. To reach full 5G capabilities, telecom service providers would be required to reach enough density to monetize the network by installing 5,000 to 20,000 5G small cells in every major city within the next five to ten years.

This brings the network much closer to mobile phones and every type of IoT sensor or device that needs connectivity. The explosive increase in bandwidth will open new possibilities.

Full 5G coverage is an ambitious goal, requiring the biggest telecom players to invest $20 billion annually in the US. As of July 2020, about 10 percent of the desired small cells are in place. What are the main roadblocks slowing rollout?

Multiple Interconnected Challenges

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The scale of the 5G network creates a multitude of problems for operators and the city governments that must approve every small cell installation before it moves forward.

  1. Adding a massive amount of infrastructure to cities is a new concept for telecom engineers and permit reviewers at the city permitting office. They’re inundated with requests for location approvals for thousands of antennas. Carriers are taking a piecemeal approach across different municipalities, which further overwhelms permit employees unfamiliar with new small cell specifics.
  2. On the carrier side, the conversations with city officials focus on deployment as a real estate matter. But the future of telecom services means installation on public right of way not private property. This is a structural, civil, electrical, transportation engineering and city planning issue that needs to be resolved at scale. Telecom service providers need to make sure to look at this from an engineering angle, to avoid liability of potential issues and voice similar concerns with the city permit engineers to avoid misunderstanding.
  3. Because telecom service providers want to build all over a city, there are real-world issues with such an undertaking. There are a myriad issues with construction in built-upon areas, including underground utility wires and pipes, ADA compliance issues, traffic control issues, and other problems. City engineers and permit reviewers do not want to create problems for residents, but it’s difficult to avoid some of the construction-related problems with 10,000 antenna installations.
  4. Telecom service providers deploying 5G typically handle each antenna install as a one-off project, taking up a lot of time and human capital. The 5G rollout is the biggest U.S. project since the highway system, but it’s still stuck in dated implementation methods. The costs of the 5G infrastructure means every individual site comes with disproportionate costs, forcing site acquisition, engineering and construction companies as well as municipalities to add various fees. The industry needs a scalable solution to streamline site selection, construction plans, and discussions with the city.
  5. For telecom providers, there are not a lot of collocation options available. They need a certain density of antennas to offer full coverage and 5G’s capabilities. Many cities do not allow carriers to build more than a set number of antennas at a certain distance. Only one operator can build at each site, and collocation is not an option at this point, so they are racing against each other to lock up locations. There might be compromise for colocation agreements at single antennas, but these are fraught with technical issues and contentious dealings between operators.

A common thread throughout these issues is the lack of scale and uniformity within the 5G antenna deployment process. Site acquisition, construction plans, and inspection drawings are developed manually, and every antenna is a self-enclosed disconnected project.

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Looking Ahead

The industry will require more scalable solutions through innovative structural, electrical, city planning and transportation engineering methods to reach the ambitious 5G deployment goals. Many upcoming and existing industries are dependent on the availability of 5G. By the end of 2025, an optimistic goal for the industry is 70% of the desired antennas are in place. Telecom service providers need to work on multiple areas such as streamlining the engineering and approval processes through automation and increasing public education efforts about the safety and capabilities of 5G.

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Sean Shahini

Sean Shahini is the founder and CEO of Inorsa, a telecom engineering services company focused on accelerating 5G deployments in the US at lightning speed and a fraction of the cost through automation and AI. Today, Sean leads a team of civil, structural, transportation, and electrical engineers and programmers, focused on delivering successful 5G deployment projects to telecom service providers. Sean’s past experience lies in developing the small cell A&E solutions and team for one of the largest engineering and site-acquisition vendors in Texas. He has personally signed off on over 850, 5G/ Small Cell projects in the past 18 months – nearly 90 percent of all the 5G work done in one of the major 5G markets.