The road to 5G is already well underway. All three national wireless carriers have outlined their 5G strategies and are busy building 5G-capable networks across the country. A potential fourth national wireless carrier, Dish Wireless, is also joining the 5G movement with plans to build a 5G network from scratch.
The 5G playbook for these national carriers includes building out large Tier 1 dense urban markets, moving into the suburbs, and ultimately reaching smaller Tier 2 and 3 markets – including more rural territory. There are mandates for expanding 5G coverage beyond Tier 1 markets as well. To gain FCC approval of its acquisition of Sprint, T-Mobile has agreed to cover 90% of rural Americans with 5G.1 Smaller communications service providers (CSPs) serve Tier 2, 3, and rural markets, so it’s critical to prepare your network for the 5G opportunity on the horizon.
Large national wireless carriers are taking three distinct approaches with 5G, largely based on spectrum holdings. Where pockets of high population density are present, these carriers are deploying 5G infrastructure that leverages highband millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum. This spectrum offers very high bandwidth capabilities, but over very short distances. It requires the use of small cells every 1,000 feet or so to provide adequate coverage.
As you move into the suburbs and smaller markets, including rural areas, carriers are relying on low-band spectrum, which affords greater coverage and range, but lower bandwidth capabilities. Wireless carriers with access to mid-band spectrum may have the best of both worlds – high bandwidth capability with good range.
Regardless of 5G approach, one underlying factor is true for all carriers. Increased fiber connectivity will be needed, and lots of it. In anticipation of 5G coming to smaller markets, and with the carrier business opportunity that the move creates, smaller CSPs should plan network capacity accordingly. Larger national, and even regional, wireless carriers won’t have fiber assets in all of these markets and will be looking for fiber connectivity partners to fulfill their 5G build out goals.