If you’ve ever been on your mobile phone at work and had to move near the window to get a connection strong enough to hear what the person on the other end was saying, you’re not alone.

If standing next to that window made you impatient for 5G mobile service to arrive, then there are a few things you should know.

What will 5G indoor coverage be like?

When mobile operators roll out the first 5G mobile services, they’re going to start building 5G networks where they built 4G: on outdoor cell towers.  There are multiple reasons why indoor coverage has suffered in some places, and plenty of these hurdles will continue to challenge operators in 5G.

The challenges to good indoor mobile coverage are structural.  Newer, more environmentally friendly window glass is hard for wireless signals to penetrate, for example.
But, the most important reasons are more financial than technological.

Why is signal better in a packed arena than an office building?

Case in point: In big venues like sports stadiums and airports, mobile operators have commonly deployed distributed antenna systems (DAS) which contain radio equipment from multiple operators.

But, DAS are expensive to install and maintain.  In big venues with big crowds, it’s worth the expense for mobile operators.  But, for medium-sized venues – say, your average office building, with less than 20 floors – DAS is typically cost-prohibitive.

Mobile network equipment vendors have, in the past five years, introduced low-power radio network solutions similar to DAS that they say are cost-effective for medium-sized venues.

But, these solutions – call them ‘distributed small cells’ – haven’t been as good as DAS at providing support for multiple operators; that fact has impeded their adoption, since most offices will have different providers servicing their workers phones.

The 5G indoor coverage challenge

When 5G comes along, it will bring its own complications to the indoor coverage challenge:

  • First, 5G will make greater use of high-frequency spectrum than 4G did. High-frequency spectrum doesn’t penetrate walls as well as low- or mid-frequency spectrum, which could increase the need for indoor networks like DAS.  But…
  • DAS could have trouble migrating to 5G. Some DAS can’t transmit over 5G’s high frequencies, and most DAS lack the ability to add antenna arrays needed for 5G.
  • DAS’s 5G hurdles put more pressure on distributed small-cell solutions to provide 5G. Yet, distributed small-cell solutions may not be cost-effective in very large venues, and they may not be as effective as DAS at supporting multiple operators (some small-cell solutions simply don’t, and some have only started doing so recently, giving us an unclear picture of their effectiveness).
  • The suture solution for companies might be machine-to-machine connections, adoption of which is likely to take time.  Even when they’re adopted, they’re likely to be offered by a single provider – not helping multi-operator consumer service coverage much.

Given all that, if you’re wondering whether you need to move your desk next to the window at work, take heart: whether 4G or 5G, operators will continue densifying their networks to improve service.  And if nothing else, there’s always WiFi.

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