5G Isn't Going Indoors Anytime Soon

Around 80% of all mobile data traffic is consumed indoors and the fastest variety of 5G spectrum, millimeter-wave, won't get into your home or office in the near future.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

August 21, 2019

8 Min Read
5G Isn't Going Indoors Anytime Soon

Most of today's 5G networks in the US, particularly those running in high-band spectrum, are specifically intended for customers who are walking around outside. When 5G subscribers go inside, they definitely won't get 5G. In fact, they might not even get 4G.

And, according to a wide range of executives in the wireless industry, that situation is not going to change anytime soon.

"It's super early" to talk about 5G indoors, said Slavko Djukic, CTO of Zinwave, a company that works with wireless network operators and building owners to install cellular networks inside buildings.

"A way to distribute the 5G signal inside of a building simply doesn't exist yet," added Jeremy Edalgo, director of wireless sales and engineering at McKinstry, which is a nationwide construction and engineering company that handles everything from mechanical to electrical to plumbing work. The company has worked on 10,000 buildings around the country.

"We think it's very feasible" to take 5G indoors, said Tom Anderson of ATIS, an association that develops communications standards for telecom providers in North America. However, "it's not quite there yet."

This is important because, according to a widely cited statistic, around 80% of all mobile data traffic is consumed indoors.

A new type of network
To put the indoor 5G problem into perspective, you have to go back more than a decade to the beginnings of 4G. That's when wireless services became important enough for a majority of building owners to begin thinking about how to make sure cell phones reliably work inside.

"In the beginning [of 4G], letting 700MHz [outdoor transmissions] crank through the building was good enough because people didn't even know how dependent they would be on these devices," said Verizon's Adam Koeppe at a recent investor event. "And then what happened over time? The network design actually shifted from 'outside-to-in' for in-building coverage to 'inside-stays-inside' and 'outside-stays-outside.'"

Meaning, the wireless industry has slowly been bifurcating between two types of wireless networks: Those designed for outdoor usage (where signals also penetrate most small buildings) and those designed specifically for indoor usage.

Indoor cellular networks -- often using Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) -- were first championed by giant venues like airports and stadiums where lots of people used their phones. Outdoor signals often can't reach inside those kinds of massive facilities. In those cases, wireless network operators often footed a large chunk of the DAS installation bill because they wanted to make sure their services would work in those high-profile locations.

And, according to Verizon's Koeppe, it's those locations that will likely get 5G first. "Stadiums are ripe for that kind of thing," he said, adding that he expects 5G equipment for in-building coverage to become available "towards the end of this year."

Already AT&T has announced that its AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, will be among the first such venues to sport an indoor 5G network.

As 3G transitioned to 4G and smartphones became indispensable, indoor cellular coverage quickly moved from a nice-to-have to a must-have for an increasing number of building and real estate managers. Indeed, a 2015 survey by network equipment company CommScope found that nearly half of all architects globally have begun to design buildings with in-building cellular networks in mind.

Next page: A changing business model

A changing business model
The problem, of course, is that wireless network operators don't have the cash to build a wireless network inside every office complex, apartment building and warehouse in the country. Others had to step forward.

"The building owners decided, 'Well, I'll pay for it,'" said Edalgo of McKinstry. He said this is still a bit of a new concept and as a result there are a variety of payment models for in-building cellular networks, in terms of who pays and how much. He added that one of the new services that McKinstry now offers to building owners is financing for cellular networks, though Edalgo declined to provide details on the specifics of the offering.

Similarly, Djukic with Zinwave said his company could support a variety of financing mechanisms for in-building networks, and added that companies like NextEdge Networks and Strategic Venue Partners are beginning to step forward with financing specific to real estate companies and building owners looking to add wireless coverage in their locations.

Network operators are more than happy to have someone else pay to broadcast their signals inside of buildings. T-Mobile, for example, operates a program called BYOC (Bring Your Own Coverage), where the operator provides network design reviews, approvals and its signal source to building owners. Other US operators, such as AT&T, have similar programs.

5G is a whole new ball game
There's no doubt that wireless network operators are sighing in relief as building owners and others increasingly foot the bill for indoor networks. The problem though is that 5G indoors is a whole different animal.

"There's a whole new layer that you need for 5G," said ATIS's Anderson.

He explained that today's indoor DAS networks generally rely on low-band spectrum that propagates well. 5G, meantime, will likely heavily use millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum that can't travel through doors, glass, or around corners. That means any indoor 5G network in mmWave spectrum will probably need lots of antennas, pretty much everywhere, to cover every corner of every room. Anderson said an indoor 5G network in mmWave spectrum would probably need more antennas than even a high-powered WiFi network would.

And that, Anderson said, means that most indoor 5G networks will have to use a "neutral host" design so that the building owner won't have to install different antennas for each wireless provider. Instead, 5G operators will all have to "share" a building's network equipment so that the network inside the building can connect both AT&T and Verizon customers, for example.

So far, Anderson explained, there are no standards specifically designed for indoor 5G mmWave networks using a neutral host model. However, he said that there are plenty of related technologies that can be applied to the situation, such as roaming and MOCN (Multi Operator Core Network), a 3GPP standard that allows several operators with different core networks to share common RAN nodes.

But Anderson said the industry has a long way to go before it can apply those technologies to indoor 5G. For example, he said that ATIS recently penned a white paper outlining the various ways US wireless operators could potentially support neutral host 5G networks indoors -- meaning, there isn't even a standard yet for neutral host 5G networks. The industry is only in the very early stages of outlining the contours of the problem and potential solutions and hasn't even gotten to the part where companies can evaluate actual technological solutions.

That isn't stopping some of the industry's biggest vendors from talking up the 5G indoor opportunity. Ericsson, for example, said it tested its 5G small cells with Swisscom in Switzerland in an indoor setting. "Our 5G Radio Dot allows service providers to reuse existing indoor network infrastructure as they upgrade from 4G. Building on the existing Radio Dot System architecture, one can upgrade and complement existing networks quickly and efficiently," boasted Martin Buerki, head of Ericsson Switzerland, in a release from the company.

Qualcomm, too, has started discussing the issue. The company argued that the propagation characteristics of 5G in mmWave spectrum is a benefit, not a drawback. "The fact that mmWave does not propagate well from the outside to inside is beneficial for deploying mmWave indoors as well, since the same mmWave spectrum can be reused indoors with limited coordination with the outdoor deployment," Qualcomm wrote in a recent blog.

Much of this in-building coverage discussion centers on 5G in mmWave spectrum. As operators like T-Mobile and AT&T launch 5G in the low-band spectrum, they'll undoubtedly craft marketing messages around their new ability to push 5G into more indoor locations. They likely won't mention that low-band 5G won't perform like mmWave 5G.

Back in the real world, it's still about coverage
All that said, 5G isn't even on the radar of most building owners in the US, at least today.

"We're just now seeing the design requirements from the carriers hit 4.5G levels" in buildings, said McKinstry's Edalgo, explaining that advanced LTE technologies like LAA and carrier aggregation are only now making their way into operators' in-building plans.

Edalgo added that, among building owners, there's no demand for 5G right now.

Zinwave's Djukic said he's hearing the same sorts of comments from his customers. He said discussions with building owners today are all about 4G and coverage, not 5G and capacity.

Boingo, one of the country's most prominent in-building DAS providers for 4G, has made no secret of its hopes that 5G will drive venue owners to pay to upgrade their in-building systems. However, the company's new MDU (multi-dwelling unit) business -- which stems from its acquisition of Elauwit Networks last year -- is mostly focused on adding WiFi in apartments and not cellular networks.

Wall Street analysts aren't expecting 5G to give Boingo a major boost anytime soon. "Keep in mind, [DAS] upgrades aren't entirely dependent on the timing of any ramp in 5G spending," wrote the analysts at Jefferies in a recent note to investors. "Boingo is actually still in the process of upgrading some venues from 3G to 4G."

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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