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Courtesy HERE

COVID Impact on 5G Rollout and How It Affects Geospatial Industry

While COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on 5G rollout — delayed and yet fast-forwarded its future adoption — the geospatial industry is waiting for the opportunities the technology will unleash.

COVID Impact on 5G Rollout and How It Affects Geospatial Industry

While COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on 5G rollout – delayed and yet fast-forwarded its future adoption — the geospatial industry is waiting for the opportunities the technology will unleash.

Courtesy HERE
By Anusuya Datta
By Anusuya Datta

Editor-At-Large | Technology & Innovation

If not for COVID-19, Tokyo Olympics would have been one of the major highlights of 2020. Tech and telecom industries had planned to take advantage of the event to bolster the launch of 5G services, complete with autonomous cars,3D athlete tracking, and robots doing odd jobs like retrieving javelins and shot puts, and bringing drinks to spectators. 

While the Olympics were postponed soon after the outbreak, launch of 5G has also been facing delays because of multiple reasons. As governments battle the pandemic and its spiraling effects, a trade war against China over allegations of unfair trade practices and data espionage — leading to restrictions on many Chinese tech companies including Huawei — has dampened the excitement around 5G.

Yet, there never has been a more opportune time for a telecom revolution. Good connectivity is not only critical in strengthening the fight against the virus – digital contact tracing, telehealth visits, pop-up hospitals, and testing centers – but also the rise in remote work and digital communications owing to the pandemic highlights the urgent need for more vigorous 5G adoption worldwide. After all, as MIT points out, social distancing is much easier to manage with a reliable, high-speed Internet connection.

It’s no surprise that in the middle of the global lockdowns in June, Ericsson increased its forecasts for 2020 global 5G subscriptions to 190 million, and to 2.8 billion by 2025, noting that “mobile and fixed networks are increasingly playing a bigger part of critical national infrastructure”. The uptake rate of 5G subscriptions is expected to be significantly higher than it was for 4G.

Agrees Kreg Barrett, Maxar’s Global Business Development Director for Telecommunications. “The newly distributed workforce that now work from home demand high-speed access with a high-quality of service. We are receiving many requests from our customers for more suburban and rural data, which are a big indicator of this shift.”

“Universally, we are hearing that the pandemic has also emphasized the need for automation, remote sensing, and autonomous operation capabilities that are core to the promise of 5G,” concurs Tom McDonald, Product Marketing Manager, Telecommunications at HERE Technologies. McDonald also points out that the delay in deployment isn’t uniform across the world. In certain regions, the economic conditions resulting from the pandemic seem to have delayed the move towards 5G, while in other geographies, one needs to look operator by operator. For instance, in the past couple of months, there has been significant 5G announcements in America. Rollouts have brought new 5G service to dozens of cities in the US. Dynamic Spectrum Sharing has been deployed, allowing LTE and 5G radios to use the same spectrum — eliminating the expensive “either/or” scenario of previous migrations. Recently, there was a successful trial of Integrated Access Backhaul, that is using millimeter wave, instead of fiber, to provide node-to-core backhaul, which will help speed 5G deployment where fiber runs are difficult.

Delay in deployment isn’t uniform across the world. In certain regions, the economic conditions resulting from the pandemic seem to have delayed the move towards 5G, while in other geographies, one needs to look operator by operator.
Tom McDonald
Product Marketing Manager, Telecommunications , HERE Technologies

McDonald is not wrong. The great American lockdown that put the economy on ice is fueling hopes of a 5G boom, Politico said in an article back in April. Just a day before President Donald Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency, Verizon announced $18.5-billion capital investment plans for 5G efforts, while AT&T cancelled a $4-billion stock buyback saying it wanted to keep the cash for helping workers and enhancing network, including nationwide 5G.

Of course, the pandemic has had an adverse effect on businesses, and telecom industry isn’t an exception. And delays are inevitable when you are working on projects at the scale of 5G. The challenges of data scale, velocity and agility are magnified by 5G, but telcos are looking for solutions to customer churn and network resiliency, thinks Todd Mostak, CEO, OmniSci.

From locating a complex web of new infrastructure to analyzing performance levels, the common challenge telcos face is data. | Courtesy OmniSci

The need for many telcos to shift their plans means a lot of capex will be redistributed towards changes in physical assets and infrastructure. However, that doesn’t change the need to make strategy shifts in a data-driven way with spatial context. “The use cases may evolve but telecom leaders know that they will become ‘dumb pipes’ if they do not learn from their past experiences,” highlights Florence Broderick, Vice President – Marketing, CARTO. “They know that they must use data as effectively as the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) who have effectively stolen market share away from them in other business segments in the past.”

Nick Knellinger, Director of Product, Skyhook, however, reveals that his company observed significant delays in both anticipated launches, planning and testing initiatives. “While fundamentally this has not negatively impacted our business directly, it has slowed down our ability to perform joint field testing, deferred 5G POCs, delayed releases of 5G devices that Skyhook is integrated into, and decreased the rate at which we are crowdsourcing 5G cells based on what we had previously estimated in certain regions.”

Geospatial enabling 5G

In no industry is location more important than one that is inherently mobile. Location intelligence is more critical to 5G than any other previous generation mobile network technology. 5G’s higher frequency has very short range that can be impacted by smallest of the obstructions – the palm of your hand, or even a raindrop!

Using location analytics to optimize resources is critical in order to gain real-time situational awareness and solve incidents faster. | Courtesy CARTO

This makes deployment modeling  even more important as operators are forced to densify networks. This includes estimating coverage, comparing with 4G macro cell deployments, studying subscriber mobility data, and real-world field testing, says Knellinger. Location technologies play a key role in all of these — from a data analysis and modeling perspective, integrated solutions, to field testing and deployment.

And because 5G must have a higher density of antennas, optimizing their locations by using technologies that can understand complex environments and quickly model different options can make or break the deployment, explains Mostak.  

Because 5G must have a higher density of antennas, optimizing their locations by using technologies that can understand complex environments and quickly model different options can make or break the deployment.
Todd Mostak
CEO, OmniSci

Unlike previous generation mobile technologies, 5G aims to enable entirely new use cases, with the most exciting being for industrial enterprise applications. However, business planning for these new use cases requires entirely different inputs than simply planning for LTE coverage and capacity. In many cases, McDonald says, infrastructure will have to be deployed in areas where none existed previously. Additionally, location intelligence such as terrain maps, cartographic information, building geometry, road traffic, and surrounding infrastructure, can be critical in planning.

The need for 3D modeling

As the higher millimeter-wave 5G frequencies (above 24 GHz) travel shorter distances, delivering coverage will require up to 10 times more cell sites than 4G/LTE. Further, these higher frequencies also require obstruction-free, line-of-site between the site and the user. “Understanding the height of these cells is even more critical — more sites, more line-of-site validation… this can quickly add up to a significant increase in on-site survey work required for antenna installation,” explains McDonald.

While all network deployments up to 4G mostly used 2D map, 5G mandates the need for 3D modeling of the environment around us. 3D geospatial imagery derived from ground-based LiDAR at sub-meter or better accuracy can bring deployment locations virtually. This precision enables cell site location evaluation to take place at scale in the office, saving time and money for operators.

Beamforming is a 5G technology that focuses a wireless signal towards a specific receiving device. To plan for a signal’s reflective nature in beamforming planning, a deep understanding of the buildings and objects for a particular coverage area is required. Here, geospatial data, along with 3D building geometry, and even building composition material, are helpful.

Satellite imagery is crucial

Satellite imagery has long been foundational to building 3D models that mobile network operators require for planning and optimizing antenna placement. As Barrett of Maxar points out, these models have historically been built in urban core areas where mobile traffic was highest. 

5G networks will utilize much higher frequency spectrum to achieve their throughput and download speeds. But since those signals travel a shorter distance and are susceptible to interference from structures and vegetation, 5G requires a higher fidelity dataset, much like what Vricon offers, which captures tree canopies, ‘street furniture’ and any other obstacles that could impact signals. 

In this post-COVID word, higher fidelity data is needed everywhere. The only way to support such a wide area endeavor is with space-based imagery collection with constant revisit capabilities.
Kreg Barrett
Global Business Development Director, Telecommunications, Maxar

And, it’s not just about the central business districts of a city anymore. “In this post-COVID word, higher fidelity data is needed everywhere, from supporting your work-from-home needs, to your teenager’s Netflix streaming habit to ensuring your autonomous vehicle has constant connectivity on the road. The only way to support such a wide area endeavor is with space-based imagery collection with constant revisit capabilities,” emphasizes Barrett.

5G enabling geospatial

With 5G comes an astronomical influx of geospatially aware data from every part of the network, towers and handsets. But as Mostak points out, this massive growth in data is only valuable if you can collect, process and analyze it in near-real-time. 5G networks are an important step in making that possible. “This data has the power to offer incredible insights that impact our customer’s bottom line, including predicting and preparing for network outages, and reducing customer churn. When you combine a cutting-edge 5G network with a GPU-powered accelerated analytics, you get a full analytics process that runs at the speed of curiosity, and reduces the time-to-value by orders of magnitude.”

5G is going to be a powerful catalyst for the geospatial industry, particularly for those using human mobility data from cell tower networks or GPS. Much higher volume of mobile event data will be created on the networks, providing insights at a greater granularity than ever before.
Florence Broderick
Vice President, Marketing, CARTO

“5G is going to be a powerful catalyst for the geospatial industry, particularly for those using human mobility data from cell tower networks or GPS. Much higher volume of mobile event data will be created on the networks, providing insights at a greater granularity than ever before,” adds Broderick. This data will be extremely helpful to local governments, retailers, real estate firms, OOH brands and other players who use foot traffic data to drive business decisions — whether to improve public transport, consolidate store networks or mould commercial real estate to the new reality we live in a post-COVID world. 

Latency and capacity are hailed as being revolutionary in 5G, specifically in markets accelerated by the advancement in these areas and the impact to machine to machine communications and learning — AR/VR, IoT, robotics, autonomous driving, etc. In terms of positioning, many of the same key 5G use cases also rely on high precision geolocation in any environment, says Knellinger. Examples include E911 regulations, autonomous vehicle navigation, IoT asset tracking, or UAV missions and operations. Knellinger is also excited about the standardization of angle of arrival and round trip timing, and how these values can be used to enhance positioning accuracy across use cases.  

Latency and capacity are hailed as being revolutionary in 5G, specifically in markets accelerated by the advancement in these areas and the impact to machine to machine communications and learning — AR/VR, IoT, robotics, autonomous driving, etc.
Nick Knellinger
Director of Product, Skyhook

The smart future

5G will usher in new technologies that will significantly impact the overall mobile network architecture, thus influencing the traditional positioning concepts as well. The value of location-based services for industries such as advertising and marketing, transportation, retail, will only increase as 5G and its subsequent expansion enables more mobile interaction opportunities.

As Cisco says, the appeal of 5G is that it isn’t just a new technology for service providers to upgrade their network but also it is about what it can do for their customers on their path to digitization.

For smart cities to respond instantly to data collected from countless remote sensors, AI and Machine Learning engines will need to know not only the “where,” but also “what’s around” — that is, the location context of everything around and between a point-of-interest, explains McDonald. The evolution towards these technologies will move location intelligence from the peripheral role it has played in enterprise decision-making to a core requirement. It is the combination of these next-generation technologies working in concert with location intelligence that is key to driving the improved real-world outcomes promised by IoT and smart cities. 

Geospatial technology isn’t just about visualizing the network, it’s about predicting opportunities and ensuring efficient capex allocation in a demanding market. Telecom players, particularly now that networks are evolving towards the new normal, are under huge pressure from shareholders to ensure the best returns possible in new technologies, and using spatial data science in that process can be a real enabler, underlines Broderick.

In conclusion, as McDonald says, location software and data lives in the “software layer” of the telco infrastructure. Like other crucial software enablers, it is part of the “hardware virtualization” strategy that many operators are pursuing. It unlocks the value out of the hardware investment, and will set the industry on a course to bring new services, new capabilities to life.  

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