5G: Where we are and what’s to come

By DALE WILLIS, Milliken -- The rest of the world may know 5G from cell-service-provider ads, but the cabling community sees it in a different light. Staying educated is the best way to prepare for 5G, since we don’t quite yet know its logistical details.

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By Dale Willis

The deployment of 5G may be the biggest challenge the cabling industry has faced to date. Technology has advanced rapidly within the last century, but the difference between 4G and 5G is so stark and requires such a different approach that the entire industry is facing a learning curve. Despite these differences, there are some measures the cabling industry can take that will help us prepare for 5G’s widespread adoption.

The rest of the world may know 5G only from cell-service-provider ads, but the cabling community sees 5G in a different light. We know that the coming of 5G means more fiber deployment, more bandwidth required in data centers and the installation of 5G base stations and antennas. In order to keep a positive perspective on the situation, it can be helpful to take a step back from considering these minutiae and remember how 5G could transform our everyday lives as individuals and make them better.

What is 5G?

5G is an expansion of the current long-term evolution (LTE) structure using radio waves combined with antennas. Its high-frequency bands use a fixed wireless network to employ a higher density of smaller cells. These smaller cells provide significantly increased speeds that are about 100 times faster than current 4G technology and reduce latency to less than 10 milliseconds. For reference, an eye blink is approximately 300 milliseconds.

The 5G era is, of course, a direct result of the growing number of devices connected to the internet. But beyond that natural growth is an expansion. For example, 5G networks are intentionally designed to accept small, low-powered devices so that nearly anything, from pencils to toothbrushes, will be able to connect to the internet. The speeds that 5G can bring are almost unfathomable.

Consumer impact

There’s a lot of emphasis right now on healthcare and technology, and we can expect 5G to play a significant role in that arena. Telemedicine is on the rise even now, but reliable, real-time connection can allow remote monitoring that transforms telemedicine. For example, a patient with serious health problems could connect with a doctor who gets real-time transmission of data and can take quick action.

Another area where we expect expansion is infrastructure intelligence, such as smart cities, driverless cars and increased automation of everyday tasks. There will probably be new industries that rise from the widespread availability of 5G that we can’t even comprehend quite yet. While inevitably there will be some fun, perhaps unnecessary developments that arise from 5G—like augmented reality games, for example—developers are already considering how this technology will be used to help us improve efficiency and live more-fulfilled lives.

Business impact

Businesses already understand how 5G will benefit their operations. Many are waiting for 5G to become available so they can expand their processes and increase their production levels. Manufacturers, for example, are looking forward to having more connected devices for better insight into their supply chains to help improve operational efficiency and enforce quality control. Real-time security updates—a concern for almost every business—can be transformed with the lighting-fast speeds 5G brings.

Businesses also recognize how connected technologies can help them be more energy-efficient. By monitoring equipment and systems via their phones or tablets, for example, they save on electricity costs for wired devices. It’s safe to say businesses will be early adopters of 5G technology, as they understand the efficiencies and growth opportunities it can bring to their companies.

Key players in deployment

The number of connected devices alone demands more bandwidth and higher speeds. In the U.S., both Verizon and AT&T have been open about their mission to deploy 5G. Although they differ in their pace of investment, both companies are investing in infrastructure to provide 5G to consumers.

Despite cellular providers’ charge to embrace this new technology, there are several factors that could slow down widespread adoption of 5G. With the sheer size of our country alone, it will be a long road to enable 5G in all the major cities. Some rural areas are still suffering from a lack of technological advancements. 4G isn’t even available in some areas because there aren’t enough people living there to justify the investment. From an equipment standpoint, it also takes time for everyone to buy new, 5G-enabled equipment and cell phones.

Then there’s the health concern. Electromagnetic waves are often presented as potential health risks, and 5G is no different. There was public speculation that microwaves caused cancer—and then cell phones, and now 5G. 5G requires more small, powerful cell towers closer to where we live and work—an aspect of 5G that is causing many to balk at its adoption.

Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland have either slowed or halted their 5G deployments due to health concerns. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) both have said the deployment of 5G is not a cause for concern. Nevertheless, New Hampshire and some cities in California are blocking or slowing 5G headways due to health concerns. It’s true that 5G is so new that we don’t know yet whether health risks exist. If the fear of health risks becomes more widespread, waiting for studies to prove 5G’s safety may halt its progress.

Impact on fiber

No matter when 5G becomes widespread, it is coming, and the cabling industry has to be prepared. Although some aspects of 5G’s impact are still unknown, there are many aspects of its arrival we do know, and the time to prepare is now.

5G will demand more fiber. As we well know, just because something is “mobile,” doesn’t mean there aren’t wires involved. Wires run to antennas to transmit to connected devices, and those wires have to be able to handle the bandwidth 5G requires.

The fiber industry will continue to evolve to accommodate this traffic demand. More bandwidth means more fiber. More fiber will need to be manufactured, and more fiber will need to be laid. The Fiber Broadband Association released a white paper in 2017 estimating that 1.4 million miles of fiber would be necessary to provide 5G service to just the top 25 metropolitan land areas in the U.S.

Fiber installations will evolve as well. Because there will be shorter distances between antennas, fiber deployments will also be shorter. As antennas move closer to urban areas, available space is a factor that cannot be overlooked. Underground space will grow scarce, and the industry will have to consider ways to overcome that complication.

Impact on data centers

5G is already starting to impact data centers in both how they are managing higher fiber demands and where they are being built. Part of the reason data centers are experiencing these changes early is that many companies are outsourcing their data management and reducing their in-house IT staff. The concern for cybersecurity is so high that data is often safer with a company that has a team dedicated to staying abreast of current changes and potential threats. Increased outsourcing means data management companies need to make changes to their data centers to handle the increased demand.

Even if there is little room for expansion, data centers and other facilities can upgrade their infrastructure by using all the available space within the conduits. Perhaps old fiber needs to be pulled out and new fiber installed. Even if one or two cables are already placed, installers can pull more cables within the same conduit by using a fabric innerduct. A fabric innerduct serves as a divider between cables and prevents cable-on-cable friction, making it a good option for high-bandwidth areas.

Being close to consumers is also a factor that companies are starting to consider as they build new data centers. While 5G’s cable deployment may initially seem as though it’s only affecting cities with high populations, rural areas should expect to see some action as well. Many companies are building data centers in rural areas, including Midwestern states such as Iowa. The idea is that a facility geographically located in the central United States can provide service to the east and west coasts equally.

Future-ready mindset

As we adjust to 5G, the mindset in the cabling industry is no longer one of catching up. Meeting the current demand is a thing of the past. Everyone is now thinking, “What’s next?” and keeping an eye to the future. Almost everything we do is future-ready. We don’t even lay cable now without thinking about how to manage upgrades in the future. This mindset is necessary as we experience the rollout of 5G.

Engineers are trying to be more forward-thinking and make sure they’re designing networks that are structured to handle traffic demand. They’re trying to stay ahead of the 5G curve and make sure they’re anticipating future needs.

Many new technologies are being developed to address network expansion in urban areas, because futureproofing is often easier in open areas than it is in well-populated cities. Because urban areas have the complication of limited space and optionality, engineers have to anticipate how they can leave physical space for any upgrades or changes that need to occur as well as how to avoid or minimize civil disruptions during future upgrades.

One way many engineers are overcoming these challenges is by incorporating segmented conduits with fabric dividers that allow for multiple pathways within one conduit. By maximizing conduit space, this small consideration can allow room for future expansion and keep civil disruptions to a minimum. Installing segmented conduits will also help reduce costs for future upgrades.

The need for education

The truth is we don’t know yet the details of how 5G will impact our industry. Sure, we know there will be more fiber, upgraded data centers and more localized antennas—but exactly what that will logistically look like is still speculation.

The absolute best way for engineers and other industry leaders to prepare for 5G is to stay educated. Staying well-versed by attending trade shows and educational programs and reading industry publications is a vital part of 5G readiness. The entire industry needs to have an attitude of adoption and be open to new ideas, new equipment, and new installation methods in order to make the transition to 5G successful.         u

Dale Willis has more than 20 years’ experience in building-materials, consumer and industrial markets; he leads Milliken Cable Management, a business of Milliken and Company.

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