5G is coming. Characterised by higher capacity, faster speeds (min. 10Gbs) and ultra-low latency, 5G will be vital in supporting demand for ubiquitous, superior mobile broadband, as well as machine centric communications like enterprise IoT, autonomous vehicles and connected medical devices.
However, rollout is proving far from simple. 5G networks have completely different infrastructure requirements; particularly when it comes to backhaul (ie transporting traffic from cell sites back to the core network): from the system and architecture down to the physical layer. Up to 4G, operators were faced with challenges around capacity, deployment cost and long-distance reach. 5G adds two major requirements: the need for ultralow latency (for mission critical applications), and managing the ultradense nature of the network, since 5G is characterised by dense small cell deployment.
The backhaul network must be flexible enough to accommodate different types of traffic; some prioritising latency over speed, others vice versa. Fibre technology remains the first choice for 5G backhaul due to its inhibitive bandwidths of 10+ Gbps, and allowed maximum latency of hundreds of milliseconds. However, laying fibre to connect all cells to the core isn’t always feasible due to availability and high deployment cost. So for shorter distances and hard-to-reach areas, networks will rely on wireless backhauling, with its high availability, deployment time and cost-effective approach. According to Ericsson, 40% of backhaul connections will be based on wireless technology by 2023, and amid modest growth for the telecoms equipment market as a whole, wireless backhaul is projected to grow at 3% per year.
Finally, to remain flexible enough to rapidly launch new services, the backhaul network will also be characterised by software defined networking and virtualisation, ensuring the network maximises efficiency and agility.
It’s an exciting time for the industry; despite technological challenges, there’s huge opportunity for CSPs and vendors to lead the way in future communications.