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Asset sharing essential to making 5G RAN affordable

Rethink Technology finds that upfront cost containment has been the number one priority for cellular operators in the first stage of 5G deployment, and that three main tactics have been used to achieve this ambition

Continued use of existing 4G assets, planning for increased levels of sharing of assets such as sites and fibre, and the adoption of new base station form factors have emerged as the key tactics used by network operators to make 5G radio access networks (RANs) a commercial viability.

The study from the RAN Research service of Rethink Technology – Sharing assets is key to making 5G RAN affordable – macro network deployment forecast to 2025 –surveyed 78 global Tier 1 and Tier 2 mobile operating companies from July to September 2019 about the most important factors in making their physical RANs cost-effective in the short to medium term. That is, years one to six of a commercial 5G roll-out. The sample was restricted to operators with plans to deploy 5G commercially before 2024.

Rethink believes there are very real challenges facing operators and notes that the first 5G deployments clearly show that most mobile network operators (MNOs) are initially thinking in the same old way when it comes to planning their new networks.

Not surprisingly, the study found that in the first stage of 5G deployment, upfront cost containment – indeed keeping costs lower than they were for 4G – was the number one priority for operators.

The three main tactics used to achieve this ambition were: continued use of existing 4G assets, such as sites and the core, as much as possible in the 5G launch; planning for increased levels of sharing of assets such as sites, fibre and even active RAN; and new base station form factors, notably the mini-macro, which will improve urban coverage and capacity outdoors. The report stressed the difference between the latter and small cell form factors.

Rethink found that all operators were deploying 5G first in non-standalone (NSA) mode, which works with the LTE core, and were also re-using other key assets such as sites and backhaul to preserve as much of their existing network investment as possible. This means MNO investment in NSA is lower than it would have been if the 5G new radio (NR) standards had remained as a single set of specifications.

However, the analyst believes that, in future, MNOs will migrate to standalone mode and a 5G core, so they will need to adopt other cost reduction approaches to ensure they are not saving money now, but storing up the biggest 5G spending for a few years’ time.

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