The use of the world’s first 5G network at the 2018 Winter Olympics generated excitement amongst those in the industry – and it’s easy to see why, writes Pieter Engelbrecht, business unit manager for HPE Aruba.
As a user, our expectations for instant, seamless connectivity on every device have never been higher. For stadiums and other public venues, the opportunity to keep users engaged, offering instant replays, time and location-specific offers and always-on connectivity, have not gone unnoticed.
Venue operators will likely be watching the Olympics and considering their own need to keep up with connectivity demands. The development of VR, 4k video and the growth of IoT means an explosion in user numbers and data traffic. The lure of expanding network capacity and coverage is incredibly appealing not only to mobile providers, but to any business owner wanting to keep on top of these growing technological demands.
Many public venues already run public Wi-Fi to connect technology systems and visitors. So do the events taking place in South Korea give us reason to reconsider those deployments?
For most, a journey towards 5G starts with the convergence of LTE over licensed and unlicensed spectrum. However, the way this LTE-U technology takes control of a channel is controversial and may degrade performance of Wi-Fi equipment using the same channel. The two are not working smoothly together, leaving venue operators with a headache that could extend long into the future.
Here, we identify five essential technical considerations to help stadium and venue operators make an informed decision about whether to consider unlicensed spectrum technologies alongside WiFi:
* Spectrum availability – Most stadium WiFi networks are already spectrum-constrained, meaning they are only just managing to carry their existing load. Large, crowded venues like stadiums and arenas, need 20-24 full time-equivalent channels to make a 5GHz system work (regardless of the type of technology). These WiFi networks are carefully optimised to eliminate all unnecessary transmissions. Adding more unlicensed systems will reduce available capacity for WiFi operations in this scenario. At present, there are no public technical measurements of deployed systems – so the actual impact is unknown. If four separate unlicensed networks are deployed, the negative impact on WiFi connectivity will be even greater.
* Number of networks required – Visitors to a stadium each carry devices run by different operators. To offer gigabit cellular connectivity, and a consistent experience to all, you’ll need to permit all four to deploy an unlicensed network. Because this technology is so new, it lacks a “neutral host” methodology, so each operator will require its own separate physical network and spectrum. Without huge outlay, this can damage the customer experience.
* Compatibility – Most stadiums and arenas have either separate antenna systems for each major mobile operator or a converged neutral-host distributed antenna system (DAS). Large venue operators interested in unlicensed spectrum technology, should first check its compatibility with their existing DAS. To be compatible, a DAS system must support an expansive LTE-U/LAA small cell deployment where the primary cell (PCell) is the DAS and each PCell has dozens of secondary cells providing 5GHz service.
* Cost, cost, cost – The amount of equipment and the cost of a hybrid WiFi/cellular situation is significant. For example, a 60 000-seat stadium at typical under-seat densities, would require about 850 WiFi access points. Stadium operators adopting unlicensed LTE technology would need over 3 000 additional small cells; each requiring sturdy waterproof housing, a 30-watt Power over Ethernet connection, Cat-6 cabling, and conduit. These small cell deployments would make the same physical footprint as WiFi, which is likely to already be installed. All of this, and we’re not even mentioning the fact that many of today’s devices have WiFi-only connectivity, with billions more set to follow in the future.
* Risk – It’s critical to consider the risk of adding multiple unlicensed mobile networks to your WiFi environment. It took about seven years and three full generations of radio designs for WiFi vendors to perfect high-capacity stadium systems, yet providers of LTE-U/LAA are only just getting started, let alone those working on 5G.
As a robust, stable and mature technology, WiFi’s strength and ability to handle exceptional data traffic loads at large venues is well established. Yet as research suggests mobile data traffic will grow by 47% annually through 2021, it’s no surprise that new solutions – ultimately leading us to 5G – are cropping up.
But the key takeaway, is to think about both the pros and the cons of combining these two technologies before taking any action. Delaying combining WiFi and unlicensed LTE networks, until the equipment can prove itself reliable outside of the Olympic bubble, is well worth considering.