$2.2 trillion. That is the anticipated value of the 5G wireless communications market by 2034, according to research from GSM Association, a membership organization that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide. It is a huge opportunity to make significant headway on the economic recovery that is essential in a post-COVID world. However, the vision and market value of 5G is absolutely contingent on having the right infrastructure in place to support it.
Take a state-of-the-art F1 (Formula One) racecar — a feat of precision engineering with top speeds of 246 mph and recognized as the fastest cars in the world. Put it on a dirt track, and that 246mph is nothing but theory. 5G wireless communications faces the same conundrum: Without a solid infrastructure, the theoretical vision and the associated benefits remain completely hypothetical.
Reliable backhaul is an absolutely critical part of that solid infrastructure, and so one of the big challenges that operators face is how to deliver robust backhaul that marries the necessary capacity, coverage and reliability to let 5G reach its promised potential.
Backhaul of the Future
Backhaul forms the backbone of 5G. Many of the 5G applications that hold the most promise not only need the enhanced speeds associated with the next generation of mobile connectivity, but also increased reliability. Take the classic example of connected cars. To be able to truly support this application and reap potential returns, there can be no risk of a delayed or interrupted connection. It makes the technology unsafe and, thus, commercially unviable.
This is why the backhaul solutions that operators put in place must not only maintain a strong, consistent backhaul connection, but also they must be robust and reliable, with a fail-safe to stop any problems from affecting the end user.
This is what sets the 5G backhaul challenge apart from previous generations. It must not only deliver higher speeds and greater capacity, but also incorporate enhanced reliability, at a viable price point for mass roll out, without hugely increasing the site footprint. Not much to ask.
Not All Backhaul Challenges Are Created Equal
So far, we have looked at the universal challenges of 5G backhaul, but depending on the environment, the requirements differ slightly, and this changes the backhauling needs (see Table 1).
The challenges of 5G backhauls, sorted by environment.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges of 5G backhaul, so the question for operators is how do they design infrastructure that meets the variety of needs in a way that is reliable and delivers a 5G network that is fit for purpose?
Fiber versus Microwave
The two options operators have for backhaul are fiber and microwave, and they must weigh up the pros and cons of each solution to work out which is the most suitable for 5G networks.
Traditionally, fiber would be the go-to option for backhaul; however, it is not without its drawbacks. It requires a high capital expense (capex) expenditure — it is an expensive solution that is slow to roll out and that requires a significant amount of labor to deploy.
Microwave has always had a question mark over its suitability for backhaul because of concerns about coverage range and reliability. However, developments in microwave technology are rapidly overcoming its traditional drawbacks, particularly given the advent of dual-band solutions.
THE ADVANTAGES OF A DUAL-BAND APPROACH
Dual-band microwave systems make microwave a real-world, viable option when it comes to 5G backhaul. They incorporate the latest antenna technologies that combine multiple bands in a single antenna to offer ultra-high capacity that is now comparable to traditional fiber options. The result is that mobile operators can backhaul higher volumes of 5G traffic much farther than previously was possible, and with a number of additional benefits.
One of the biggest challenges facing operators as they look to 5G rollouts is site footprint. They must deliver significantly greater capacity, for an entirely new network generation, without significantly increasing their site footprint.
By consolidating multiple bands into a single antenna, operators can deliver the network capabilities that 5G requires without having to incur the additional costs and potential problems associated with expanding their site.
The financial benefits for operators are twofold. They lower their capex costs, as less equipment is required as each antenna is working harder. Additionally, they can avoid significantly increasing the operating expense (opex) costs associated with expanding their site footprint. Figure 1 shows the cost saving operators can see over a 10- year period by choosing a dual-band link over two single band links. The total cost of ownership (TCO) is reduced by 13 percent in year one and 25 percent by year five.
Dual-band versus single-band links reduce total cost of ownership (TCO) over a 10-year period by 13 percent in year one and 25 percent by year five.
The dual-band approach means a single antenna can deliver higher capacity than in single band. The new dual microwave band antennas double or quadruple the capacity, depending on its polarization. This is a critical advantage for 5G where capacity is king.
By investing in equipment that works harder, operators are able to deliver a 5G service that is able to deliver on the vision for technology that has been promised over the past five years.
For operators making huge investments in 5G, they must be able to see that the 5G service they offer meets the needs of potential applications. It is only by doing this that they will be able to ensure that they see a real return on investment for 5G.
Alongside the benefit of increased capacity, by integrating two bands into a single solution, dual-band technology offers its customers a higher level of reliability, as it has an inbuilt fail-safe. If there is a temporary problem with one band, there is no down time because the other band continues to function. This is a crucial benefit for operators as they look to convince customers that their 5G networks can support connectivity critical applications such as connected cars or Healthcare IoT.
TECHNICAL DEEP DIVE
Taking a dual-band approach offers clear benefits to operators looking for a backhaul solution suitable for 5G deployments. However, not all environments have the same requirements when it comes to backhaul. This is why RFS has developed an extensive portfolio of dual-band antenna solutions to suit every environment.
Urban Areas: E-band +
To suit urban environments with a high concentration of users, RFS offers a dual-band option that incorporates ultra-high-capacity E-band with an additional medium band such as 15 GHz, 18 GHz or 23 GHz.
By combining the high throughput of E-band frequencies with the broader coverage of microwave frequency bands, RFS antennas can create a wireless backhaul offering suitable for 5G networks. The E-Band + solution can be used to replace existing 2-foot single-band links, giving significantly enhanced backhaul performance without affecting site costs.
As shown in Figure 2, E-band alone typically supports around 5 Gbps over 4 kilometers. It is perfect from a capacity perspective, but it lacks the distance required to make this a commercially viable solution. By integrating a second, medium-frequency band, a dual-band antenna can support larger volumes of 5G traffic over longer distances with lower latency than fiber-based backhaul solutions. This RFS solution delivers 10 Gbps over longer distances, making it perfect to support 5G deployments in dense urban environments.
E-band alone typically supports around 5 Gbps over 4 kilometers. It is perfect from a capacity perspective, but it lacks the distance required to make this a commercially viable solution.
Rural and Suburban: 6 + 11 GHz
The E-band solution, although perfect in city deployments, is not able to deliver the range of coverage needed to suit suburban and rural deployments. Operators would need to install greater volumes of equipment to cover vast areas, which is not economically viable. To address this, RFS has developed a second offering that delivers the same benefits of a dual-band solution, but using frequencies better suited to non-urban environments.
The new TowerBooster solution is ideal for new long-haul microwave installations and as replacements for single-band antennas. It takes the same form factor as existing 6-foot to 12-foot microwave antennas, so it can replace existing infrastructure without escalating site costs.
It supports both horizontal and vertical polarization in each band, allowing the capacity to be doubled, compared with single-band, dual-polarized microwave antennas, or quadrupled, in comparison with single-band, single-polarized equipment.
Beyond the increased capacity, by using multiple bands, operators benefit from an increasingly reliable and robust microwave backhaul solution that serves the rural and suburban environments.
Technical Specification Including
- Provides ETSI Class 3 ultra-high performance
- Meet FCC Part 101 Cat A standards in the 6 and 11 GHz bands
- Feature high cross-polarization discrimination (XPD) between the two bands to support high- capacity cross-polarization interference cancellation (XPIC) and co-channel dual-polarization (CCDP) applications
- Maximize the effects of link diversity in a single antenna to mitigate multipath fading on long- distance links and to increase link quality and availability
- Incorporate RFS structural design features to achieve outstanding mechanical reliability
All solutions are available in both standard and high-wind, high-ice configurations for reliable operation in severe environment and climate conditions, making microwave backhaul for 5G viable everywhere.
5G EVERYWHERE – USE CASES
By having multiple dual-band solutions to suit different environments, RFS is able to deliver reliable, robust 5G backhaul solutions in virtually any environment, for a wide range of use cases.
Smart Cities – Technology: E-band + Solution
One of the huge selling points of 5G is the enablement of smart cities. The promise of a wide range of real-time safety applications, better management of utilities and smart transportation make it a hugely appealing proposition for operators looking to drive new revenue streams. However, the vast number of sensors and connected devices needed to make this a reality, need a backhaul system that can support a huge surge in demand for high-speed connections. The E-band + solution can help operators meet this need and deliver enhanced, reliable connectivity in a city environment.
Connected Wind Farms – Technology: TowerBooster
As the world strives for sustainability, wind power has grown exponentially. As this trend continues, there is an opportunity for energy providers to improve efficiency by taking advantage of 5G technology for connected turbines. These provide actionable insights to improve efficiency, but to deliver, 5G must extend to the rural areas that are most often home to wind farms. By extending coverage out to rural areas and ensuring 5G infrastructure that is capable of supporting reliable and real-time updates, operators are able to support this rapidly growing industry. The TowerBooster solution, which is available in high-wind, high-ice configurations, can deliver cost-effective, reliable backhaul in rural environments to support this, and many other potential 5G use cases.
Manufacturing – Technology: TowerBooster
The 5G industrial IoT (IIoT) market is anticipated to be worth $15.7 billion by 2026, according to recent research from Markets and Markets. However, to achieve this potential, 5G cannot be restricted to cities, because many manufacturing facilities are located in more rural environments. This represents a huge incentive for operators to expand the reach of 5G to extend to areas where manufacturers can take advantage of 5G to power IIoT applications that deliver tangible benefits for their business. To be able to support these applications, operators need to be able to offer businesses high-capacity, reliable 5G connections. The TowerBooster solution takes care of the backhaul element of this infrastructure in a way that is efficient and easy to install, delivering the optimum performance needed without compromise.
5G APPLICATION: ENHANCED SPORTS VIEWING
One of the use cases expected to generate a rapid return on investment for operators’ investments in 5G is sport viewing. Even in a year with minimal live sport, U.S. over-the-top (OTT) provider FuboTV saw a monthly average revenue per user (ARPU) of $54.79. It is an industry where users have shown time and time again that they are prepared to pay for premium services, presenting a great opportunity for operators that can deliver.
In-stadium Deployments – Technology: E-band +
It is not news that data consumption in sports venues surges during matches as viewers crave an ever more interactive experience. By offering the infrastructure to support data surges with the E-band + solution, operators can deliver the connectivity that sports fans are demanding.
Enhanced Home Viewing – Technology: TowerBooster
OTT providers are already touting augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) options to enhance the sports viewing experiences. With great experience comes great data consumption, and this is where having a high-capacity, reliable 5G network becomes critical. With the TowerBooster solution, RFS can help offer this in all environments, without skyrocketing investment costs that make it impractical.
5G does offer significant revenue opportunities for operators, but only if the infrastructure is in place to consistently and reliably support them. Operators need to deliver unequivocal connectivity, and dual-band solutions offer a smart solution to this challenge. By diversifying frequencies, they can offer enhanced reliability of connectivity, as well as increased capacity. By using a consolidated form factor, they can avoid escalating tower costs and minimize the visual effect of 5G.
For 5G to see its full potential and start delivering ROI for operators, it cannot be limited in its coverage. Because of the range of dual-band solutions available from RFS, robust and reliable backhaul can now be delivered in any environment. This is a critical step forward to ensure that all promised applications for 5G are capitalized on and in turn that the industry looks back on 5G as a commercial success.
The three authors, Emmanuel Saint Dizier, Benoit Bled and Benjamin Gao, are with Radio Frequency Systems (RFS), a designer and manufacturer of cable, antenna and tower systems, plus active and passive RF conditioning modules. Emmanuel Saint Dizier is vice president of microwave antenna solutions. Benoit Bled is global product line manager of microwave antenna solutions. Benjamin Gao is product line manager of microwave antenna solutions.
RFS is represented on six continents. North American readers should contact RFS via the company’s global product and marketing communication manager, Paula Mennone-Preisner, at [email protected].