Opinion: one of the greatest challenges in delivering 5G networks is doing so at a cost that operators and customers can actually afford

The 5G standard for mobile phone users is nearing completion, such that we'll begin to see the first 5G handsets in the next few years.

For consumers, 5G offers a range of benefits, from super-fast data services, to supporting autonomous vehicles, to enabling smart cities. 

The most immediate aspect of 5G for most people will be that of mobile phones – facilitating ultra-fast video downloads, streaming services and voice calls. 

5G offers many exciting capabilities – but one of the greatest challenges is how to deliver these 5G services at a cost that operators and customers can actually afford. 

The cost of building a 5G network may be prohibitive for smaller players

But all of this will come with challenges for operators, and the most pressing one is cost.

Most customers are unwilling to pay significantly more for their mobile phone package, and there is an increasing expectation of unlimited data packages. 

Globally, mobile phone services are considered to be maturing, with nearly everyone owning a phone. Meanwhile, revenue, on a per-user basis, has been growing at approximately 2.5 percent per annum for the past number of years. 

To launch 5G, mobile phone operators are faced with greatly increasing capital and operational costs, but with a static income to pay for it all. To stay competitive, companies will need to build a national 5G network. But the cost of doing so may be prohibitive for smaller players.

For instance, among the reasons provided by US mobile operators T-Mobile and Sprint for merging was the need to invest in building the infrastructure for 5G networks – something neither company could afford to do effectively alone.

5G technology uses tall masts, but also requires small devices similar to WiFi routers

In the future, operators will need to be innovative in how they address both the deployment and the operational cost of such a complex network.

Aside from cost opposition from consumers, another challenge will be in actually establishing the network. To do this, mobile phone operators will need to start deploying the basestations and antennas needed to support these new services. 

The challenge is that it is expected that mobile operators will need to deploy up to ten times more basestations than are needed for 4G networks.

The scale and complexity of managing a 5G network is a huge challenge for operators

Many will be similar to what we are used to seeing on tall masts, but most will be small, similar to WiFi routers. This process is called densification.

This is a major issue for operators in practice, and means that the cost of building and then operating a nationwide 5G network will likely be many times that of existing mobile phone networks.

Then there is the issue of managing the network. At the moment, this is a very people-intensive activity – people have to follow up on fault reports, complaints about black spots, and have to try to generally improve performance.

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Listen: Robert Mullins, coordinator of CogNet, explains on Morning Ireland how a Waterford-based group is working on developing 5G, the next generation of mobile phone networks.

If the scale of the network grows by a factor of 10, the operators will not be able to afford to hire the additional support staff. Machine learning, AI systems and drones are viewed as the solution, and their use will radically change how networks are managed. 

For example, at the Science Foundation Ireland-funded CONNECT centre, we are exploring intelligent systems that combine operator infrastructure measurements with performance metrics from apps on phones that report user experiences. 

Our aim is to assess the ability of machine learning to propose network improvements in terms of how to configure the network, but also where black spots may need new basestations. 

Operators will need to be innovative in how they address both the deployment and the operational cost

Other projects are proposing the use of drones to fly through an area and measure the mobile phone coverage without having to send someone in person.

Overall, 5G offers many exciting prospects to us as users, with a range of new abilities and services.

In a competitive world where 5G is essential for the future of any mobile phone service, the scale and complexity of managing a 5G network is a huge challenge for operators. 

This challenge will reward the most innovative and capable operators with the ability to deploy and profit from the opportunities 5G offers.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.