5G connectivity – can your venue take the strain?

by Tiffany Paczek
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The world’s first 5G network has launched, so what are the implications for Wi-Fi in large venues? MARK VERBLOOT reports.

The use of the world’s first 5G network at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea generated excitement among those in the industry – and it’s easy to see why.

As users, our expectations for instant, seamless connectivity on every device have never been higher. We want to Snapchat performers, post selfies at concerts, check in at football games and communicate with people in the outside world. For stadiums and other public venues, the opportunity to keep visitors engaged, offering instant replays, time and location-specific offers and always-on connectivity, has not gone unnoticed.

Following the Olympics, venue operators must now consider their own need to keep up with connectivity demands. The development of VR, 4K video and the growth of IoT (Internet of Things) 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 major venues around Australia already run public Wi-Fi to connect technology systems and visitors. So why does the recent Winter Olympics give us reason to review these deployments?

For most, a journey towards 5G starts with the convergence of Long-Term Evolution (LTE) over the licensed and unlicensed spectrum. The way this LTE-U technology takes control of a channel is controversial, however, and may degrade the 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 are five essential technical considerations to help stadium and venue operators make an informed decision about whether to consider unlicensed spectrum technologies alongside Wi-Fi.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SPECTRUM

Most large venue Wi-Fi 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 to 24 full-time-equivalent channels to make a 5 GHz system work (regardless of the type of technology). These Wi-Fi networks are carefully optimised to eliminate all unnecessary transmissions.

Adding more unlicensed systems will reduce available capacity for Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi connectivity will be even greater.

HOW MANY NETWORKS ARE 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.

As 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.

ARE YOUR ANTENNA SYSTEMS COMPATIBLE?

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 their venues’ compatibility with their existing DASs.

To be compatible, a DAS must support an expansive LTE-U/LAA (licensed-assisted access) small cell deployment where the primary cell (pCell) is the DAS and each pCell has dozens of secondary cells providing 5 GHz service.

COST, COST, COST

The amount of equipment and the cost of a hybrid Wi-Fi/cellular situation are significant. For example, a 60,000-seat stadium, at typical under-seat densities, would require about 850 Wi-Fi access points. Stadium operators adopting unlicensed LTE technology would need over 3000 additional small cells – each requiring sturdy waterproof housing, a 30-watt Power over Ethernet (PoE) connection, Category 6 cabling and conduit. These small cell deployments would make the same physical footprint as Wi-Fi, which is likely to already be installed. All of this needs to be considered, and we’re not even mentioning the fact that many of today’s devices have Wi-Fi-only connectivity, with billions more set to follow in the future.

EVALUATE RISK

It’s critical to consider the risk of adding multiple unlicensed mobile networks to your Wi-Fi environment. It took about seven years and three full generations of radio designs for Wi-Fi vendors to perfect high-capacity stadium systems, yet the providers of LTE-U/ LAA are only just getting started, let alone those working on 5G.

As a robust, stable and mature technology, Wi-Fi’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 percent 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 Wi-Fi and unlicensed LTE networks, until the equipment can prove itself reliable outside of the Olympic bubble, is well worth considering.

Mark Verbloot is systems engineering director, Asia Pacific Japan for Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company.

This article also appears in the June/July issue of Facility Management magazine.

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