It’s time to get excited about indoor 5G – Light Reading

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There is plenty of excitement in the US wireless industry about taking 5G indoors.

“We think the opportunity for indoor is significant,” said Ed Farscht, CEO of cell tower company Diamond Communications, during the “View from the Top” keynote event at the Wireless Infrastructure Association’s (WIA) recent annual trade show.

Indeed, Diamond acquired Cheytec Telecommunications, a company that specializes in in-building wireless networks, in 2019.

Other executives speaking at the WIA event agreed with Farscht’s assessment.

“The size of that [in-building] opportunity is growing every day,” said Brendan Cavanagh, CEO of cell tower giant SBA Communications. “I do think there is opportunity there.”

Cavanagh said the industry collectively will need to work on the business model for indoor wireless networks because it’s sometimes not clear who should pay for the network: the building owner, the wireless network operator, a third party or some mix of the three.

Additional support for the indoor 5G opportunity comes from WIA itself. The trade association recently launched its In-Building Forum to connect the group’s members to indoor wireless opportunities in industries ranging from manufacturing to healthcare.

“I think this is a really big opportunity for the wireless industry,” Patrick Halley, the WIA’s CEO, said during the keynote event.

Other associations are also eyeing the indoor wireless sector. The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) recently formed a new Neutral Host & Infra Sharing Project Group, which has resulted in part from the work Facebook owner Meta conducted with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. As Light Reading previously reported, the companies teamed up to deploy small cells in the 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band for a neutral host indoor wireless network for Meta’s offices around the country.

Meta remains a driving force behind TIP, despite the company’s recent shut down of its Connectivity unit, which sought to extend the Facebook social network to more users.

The indoor market

Indoor wireless coverage wasn’t a focus during the early days of 5G. That’s because big network operators like T-Mobile and Verizon were focused on broadcasting their 5G signals across wide geographic areas, primarily by installing new 5G radios atop massive outdoor cell towers.

The situation is much different now. T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T have all cut back on their 5G network buildout efforts, preferring instead to strengthen their financial footing with price increases and other revenue-boosting strategies.

But indoor cellular coverage remains a key concern for venue owners such as stadium operators and hospital administrators because cell connections are now viewed as the “fourth utility” inside buildings, rather than a nice-to-have amenity.

Indeed, according to the WIA, there are roughly 775,800 indoor small cell nodes in use across the US today – far more than the 153,400 purpose-built cellular towers spread around the country.

However, the overall size of the in-building market remains relatively small. The WIA reported that the construction of in-building networks generated nearly $274 million in spending in 2022, while operating those networks generated another $293 million in spending. That’s a fraction of the $39 billion big wireless network operators invested in their networks during 2022, according to trade association CTIA.

Growing the market

Traditionally, indoor wireless networks have relied on big and expensive distributed antenna systems (DAS). Such systems typically run inside giant venues like sports stadiums.

But a growing number of companies are hoping to deliver indoor networks to smaller building owners, such as the owners of office buildings. This kind of installation relies on less expensive small cell systems, and in some cases they use technologies like MOCN or MORAN to support multiple network operators with a single system.

“It’s an interesting evolution,” said Jim Estes, CEO of Dense Air, a company that builds and operates neutral host networks. Dense Air offers a 4G neutral host system in the 3.5GHz CBRS band with software from Druid Software and equipment from Airspan, but is financing the development of a 5G system that would work in operators’ licensed midband 5G spectrum holdings, according to Estes. That system would use silicon from EdgeQ, software from Radisys, cloud computing support from Google Cloud, and radios that Dense Air is developing itself.

A team of 150 software engineers based in the UK is developing Dense Air’s indoor midband 5G radios, Estes said, adding that the investment is worthwhile because so far no other equipment vendor has developed that kind of indoor radio.

“We’re building it ourselves because what we want is not available today,” he told Light Reading.

Estes explained that Dense Air’s new 5G platform could help network operators like AT&T and Verizon extend their midband 5G networks indoors, including into venues that historically wouldn’t be able to afford expensive DAS systems. But it’s not clear yet how such installations might be funded, whether by network operators, venue owners, a third party or a combination of the three, he said.

In any case, Estes also sees a bright future when it comes to indoor 5G.

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