The low latency and fast speeds of 5G promise to deliver greater adoption of Smart Systems projects like smart buildings and smart cities. However, 5G networking demands massive connected computing to deliver its power and offer the services—like network slicing—that will make the whole undertaking worth the effort.
This requires innovative ecosystems to get the tech installed and creative imagination to envision those services. Carrier companies, accustomed to going it alone, typically have neither.
ERADICATING THE LAST MILE
More than 90% of Americans have access to some form of broadband today, but the various options available face cost, speed and flexibility challenges, and service options for businesses remain limited. As coverage nears ubiquity and prices drop, broadband suppliers must drive margins by differentiating themselves through improved bandwidth, latency and reliability.
The two obvious opportunities for improving wireless access—across the world but in particular in the U.S.—are remote rural locations like farms and densely populated urban areas. Everyone knows that rural locations and developing countries are underserved, but most people fail to recognize that older buildings in cities like New York still lack high-speed fiber connections because expensive wired infrastructure has never been installed.
These urban buildings tend to be used for apartments, offices and retail—sometimes combining two or even all three of those categories. The COVID pandemic and the phenomenon of remote work has exposed two big problems: A huge amount of office space is sitting vacant, while many urban workers have been confined to their apartments doing teleconferencing all day with less-than-ideal bandwidth.
Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) Solves Broadband Challenges
source: Harbor Research
For residential and business customers in those situations, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA)—via 4G-LTE today and more so with the rollout of 5G—is one of several ecosystem innovations that can improve urban connectivity dramatically. FWA is a last-mile technology that extends the Internet backbone via 4G/5G to provide high-speed, low-latency wireless connections without adding any wired infrastructure. It can provide speeds comparable to fiber optic connections while reducing the complexity of installation and maintenance.
FWA technology works much like a stationary cell phone: A fixed transmitter typically fed by high-speed fiber serves multiple residential and business locations. Each served location is outfitted with a dish antenna mounted outdoors to prevent the significant degradation that would be caused by the signal passing through the walls and glass of buildings.
FWA and IBW Networks Can Be Deployed Publicly or Privately
source: Harbor Research
5G FWA in the lower bands of the wireless spectrum will quickly and cheaply deliver an alternative to wired broadband, but its real advantage is in the millimeter wavelengths (mmWave)—via 5G New Radio (NR)—where FWA can provide bandwidth capacity comparable to fiber optics. This wireless signal range is also suitable for serving higher density suburban venues and cities where FWA has the further advantage of not requiring physical wires in the last-mile.
The standardized 5G supplier ecosystem represents a key advantage for FWA because user equipment, off-the-shelf silicon, and mobile networking equipment can be reused for FWA with little or no modification. And the standards-based nature of 5G FWA is an advantage because these installations are much more attractive to fund managers than the previous proprietary alternatives.
SATELLITE OPERATORS POSITION LEOs AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO FWA
As satellite bandwidth costs continue to decrease, the satellite industry is planning to raise its offered capacity 10-50 times by leveraging new Geostationary Orbit (GEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. These signals promise to offer latency and upload/download speeds similar to that of 5G FWA.
The StarLink program of SpaceX is the biggest contender, with a proposed deployment of 12,000 LEOs (more than 800 of which are already in orbit). These are primarily aimed at non-urban areas where density is low.
Boeing and OneWeb are the other main satellite providers set up to compete with FWA. Note, however, that U.S. Government allocation of spectrum to 5G operators over satellite providers inhibits the ability of LEOs to access spectrum necessary to deliver high speeds.
LEVERAGING VALUE IN URBAN OFFICE SPACE
In addition to upgrading the broadband experience in apartment buildings, FWA and other distributed computing innovations can directly enhance the value of now-underused office space, as well as the retail spaces that frequently exist on the street level of those buildings. However, this reveals two weaknesses in the ways that carriers have gone about doing business up to now.
First, the value of urban buildings will be increased only if an ecosystem is in place to do it, one that can also get the equipment installed in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, since the carriers have relied largely on themselves to this point, the ecosystems for getting new equipment installed posthaste don’t exist today.
Second, players in the telecom industry must have the creative imagination to envision all the new services that this opportunity might create. When you think “creative imagination,” does “phone carrier” immediately come to mind? Carriers have historically tended to think only about the literal services that “pipes” can provide, not about new services based on the social interaction of human beings, for example safety and security.
Many Players Will Provide Enterprise Services
source: Harbor Research
5G DEPENDS ENTIRELY ON BIG COMPUTE
It’s not discussed much, but the many wondrous powers of 5G—such as “network slicing,” which allows software-controlled virtualized networks to be created on-the-fly—are computationally expensive. To realize the full value of 5G will require roughly 10 times the computing power offered by today’s typical 4G base stations.
One huge opportunity here is the installation of self-contained data centers directly in urban office buildings. Schneider Electric has had its EcoStruxure Micro Data Centers on the market for some time, but nascent players are reportedly close to shipping smaller, more powerful units that would allegedly have a 25-to-1 cost and reliability advantage over anything available at the moment.
These refrigerator-sized server farms would put building owners in the data center business, thus enabling them to provide the computing necessary for next-generation networking. Besides commercial building owners, many other players—including utilities—will want to secure their futures by having control over their own servers with these data-centers-in-a-box. In addition, any remaining capacity from these micro data centers can be sold to other occupants of the building or the neighborhood, with roughly the same last-mile advantages as FWA.
A NATURAL OPPORTUNITY FOR BLOCKCHAIN & SMART CONTRACTS
Rolling out 5G networking across the U.S., and especially in dense, urban areas, will involve the installation of hundreds of thousands of small cells in cities and towns across the country. This is essentially distributed computing within the context of networking. When small cells were first introduced roughly a decade ago, they tended to be easily distinguishable from other mobile equipment in size, weight and power. Today many form factors, architectures and deployment scenarios are under consideration.
Further, many of the most desirable locations for small cells involve complicated legal right-of-way questions. And almost every municipality differs in how it handles contracts between carriers, technology partners, equipment vendors, land and building owners, and government agencies. Resolving the complex matrix of infrastructure, hardware and legal relationships demands a contractual approach as distributed as the technology itself. This makes mobile networks an obvious use case for smart contracts that replace human-readable legalese with code and use blockchain to record transactions without relying on any centralized authority.
THE FUTURE, SOON TO BE DISTRIBUTED
“The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed,” wrote author William Gibson, who also coined the term “cyberspace.” Throughout the entire web era, that statement has remained embarrassingly true with respect to fast internet access. Now, all indicators suggest that distributed computing will help turn that situation on its head as early as 2025.
The deployment of mobile 5G New Radio (NR) mmWave offers much more than a simple path to mobile broadband without wired infrastructure. These microcells provide the perfect platform for delivering almost ubiquitous connectivity, including massive low-latency IoT smart sensor grids for autonomous automation in factory settings. In fact, this is the way that half or more of the world’s population will experience 5G.
In Harbor’s model of “simple, compound and complex” technology growth, a true 5G core enabled by the power of distributed computing is a classic example of the complex phase.
Simple, Compound & Complex Smart Systems Applications
source: Harbor Research
As we move beyond base stations into small cells, enterprise customers as well as ordinary consumers will need nearly real-time connectivity and ecosystems robust enough to provide innovative new services for everyone. Companies with the foresight to develop these offerings will rule the day. ◆
This essay is supported by our Market Opportunity Overview “In-Building Wireless Networks.”
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