As a massive roll out of 5G is to begin in urban areas, what are the challenges for engineers?
London, Manchester and Belfast are set to be among the first cities to be equipped with 5G as BT’s mobile arm EE begins a roll out of its 5G services. The roll out includes transport hubs such as Manchester Airport and Edinburgh Waverley train station.
5G stands for fifth generation of mobile networks and it means data could be sent up to 100 times faster than 4G. The first 1,500 sites that EE is upgrading to 5G in 2019 carry 25% of all data across the whole network, but only cover 15% of the UK population.
The rollout of 5G supports the strategy put forward by infrastructure leaders, who say it is vital as transport technology evolves, particularly towards autonomous vehicles.
In its 2016 report Connected Future, the National Infrastructure Commission called for 5G on the key routes on the rail network and the motorway by 2025, as well as saying that local government needed to work with network providers to enable the deployment of tens of thousands of small masts which will be needed in urban areas.
Costain is working for client Highways England to deliver roadside technology on the A2-M2 corridor between London and Dover, which involves the design, installation and implementation of the connected vehicle corridor.
Trial vehicles will be fitted with onboard technology to communicate with roadside units via 5G wireless systems. Information such as road works, conditions, temporary speed limits and time remaining before a traffic light turns to green could be sent to the vehicles.
Following EE’s announcement, Sensat head of emerging technology and 5G expert Venkat Kondragunta said that due to the different wavelength 5G operates on, there was a lot of planning to be done to facilitate the roll out in more urban areas.
“Because the wavebands are so short for 5G, rain, physical objects like cars and just physical topography will get in its way,” he said. “It’s like two rugby players trying to get up the pitch, a heavy player [4G] is more likely to get through to the end of the field than a smaller player [5G].”
Because of this, the transmitters for 5G have much shorter effective ranges, in normal scenario the signal wouldn’t be effective beyond 200m, whereas normal telephone masts have ranges in the kilometres.
Kondragunta says that while some of the current 4G infrastructure can be used to broadcast the 5G signal, a new network of smaller masts will be needed to ensure consistent coverage. “The current infrastructure is useable for 5G but you need a new network of smaller cells to be built, building this new network will be a complex optimising project that hasn’t quite been solved yet.”
One issue arising from this is that there will need to be negoiations with landowners on the placement of these new masts. Much of the installation of new masts will be carried out by civil engineers.
The governmen and telecom regulator Ofcom have both backed a 5G rollout, in March the government awarded £25M of funding to SMEs working in the field.
Going forward, Kondragunta said the main challenge when 5G is completely rolled out will to make sure the network can support an increased number of devices: “As more users and more devices like Internet of Things devices and autonomous cars join the network, there will be a requirement for a strong backbone to the network, meaning more small cells will be needed,” he said.
“This is a non-linear problem and installing them will be a complex issue of making sure we can effectively deliver a 5G network at a reasonable cost.”
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