Go to any busy large public venue, and you’ll be surrounded by people on their mobile devices. No matter if it’s an 80,000-seat open-air stadium, a large theatre presenting a concert, a casino or major hotel, you’ll find thousands of visitors talking, texting, live streaming and uploading to social media on their devices.
Perhaps you’ve wondered how these large venues have the capacity to support so many simultaneous high-bandwidth wireless connections. Many people assume that indoor connectivity just means Wi-Fi®, and this is true in some cases. However, large buildings also have cellular networks available indoors, which have distinct performance advantages.
Indoor cellular networks, 80% of which today are 4G/LTE-enabled, provide seamless authentication, SIM card-based security and more adaptive coverage for mixed indoor and outdoor spaces. Indoor 4G/LTE in large venues is typically carried by a distributed antenna system (DAS) that connects network remotes to a headend that backhauls to the core network. Like previous generations of connectivity technology, 4G/LTE has followed the traditional evolutionary path for cellular.
Generations of cellular technology
Across the span of about a decade, the rollout of cellular technology goes through three phases. First, the new standard is deployed in the networks that cover the most people—the outdoor macro networks—where antennas, radio equipment and other infrastructure are upgraded with new equipment.
Then the focus moves indoors to large venues. Places such as stadiums, airports, casinos, transportation hubs and the like update their indoor wireless equipment to support the new generation of technology. After that, network densification happens for capacity expansion and optimization. The final years of the cycle will also see increasing interest and planning for the next generation of cellular technology, and the cycle begins anew.
Of course, there are deviations, but this overall pattern has held true for the last three generations of cellular technology. We are now in the phase of 5G growth in-building and we expect the next few years will see many more 5G upgrade projects for DAS systems that deliver cellular networks.
5G changes everything
5G deployments can provide as much as a multifold capacity increase to feed bandwidth-hungry applications. This high-density architecture is baked into 5G DAS right out of the box; it not only provides a massive pipeline for tweets, media streaming, selfies and texts today, but also offers the bandwidth to support the next generation of more interactive and immersive applications.
5G’s advantage extends far beyond its massive bandwidth increase, however. 5G’s other main benefit is its low latency—that is, the time it takes for a signal to reach its destination. 4G/LTE latency typically hovers at around 50 milliseconds (about 1/20th of a second). 5G, on the other hand, has latency that can approach as little as 1 millisecond (1/1000th of a second). That’s about as close to real-time connectivity as we’re likely to see for quite some time.
5G also supports a wide range of bands that each provide customized strengths that can be suited to a particular place or application. Its substantial sub-6GHz bands (including C-band) are ideal for broader coverage of larger areas, as well as mixed indoor-outdoor areas. At the other end are mmWave bands (26GHz and up) that provide incredible throughput speeds but can’t cover much distance and can’t easily travel through walls or other solid obstacles.
The business case for 5G: For the fans
In a large public venue, 5G’s flexibility, bandwidth and latency can power next-generation experiences for fans and visitors. In a business where dazzling the fans or on-time arrivals and departures are metrics of success, 5G-enabled virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications can be critical differentiators. Imagine tens or even hundreds of thousands of simultaneously-connected users being able to:
- Call up 4K-resolution football replays, curated statistics and player profiles on-demand
- Read the lyrics and record video of their favorite live band’s performance
- View 3D video of the cheering crowd, as seen from the performer’s perspective
- Watch your favorite show or movie in 4K while waiting for your flight
- Placing micro-bets on the outcome of a particular play, just seconds before it happens
These VR/AR and other high-bandwidth, low-latency applications, as well as those yet to be created, can all be delivered on a stadium-size scale by 5G DAS. With more and more 5G-enabled devices finding their way into people’s pockets, the ultimate interactive and immersive entertainment experience will soon be within easy reach of every fan—if the venue is geared to deliver it.
The business case for 5G: For venue operations
5G is not only for the fans, but also venue operations. The seamless authentication and enhanced security afforded by a 5G network, along with its backhaul to the core network, mean venue operators can:
- Securely connect wireless ticket-taker scanners to improve security
- Manage stadium operations over a secure network, including door locks and other IoT devices
- Provide emergency response agencies with dedicated public safety communications channels inside the venue
- Offload Wi-Fi traffic to ensure consistent user experiences for fans and employees alike
- Monetize venue-specific visitor applications like the experiences listed above
It’s also worth noting that there are now 5G-ready DAS solutions that operate over standard IT cabling, making them simple and relatively inexpensive to install—which no doubt comes as a relief to venue operators who must upgrade or replace existing 4G/LTE platforms. And the headend equipment needed to operate a private 5G network has been dramatically simplified, so it can fit into a small room or even be managed off-premises via fiber optic cabling. This not only saves space, but also reduces the amount of cooling required—and modern 5G DAS platforms can dynamically shift power levels as traffic needs change, improving overall electrical efficiency. This is important to many venue operators who weigh environmental sustainability in every infrastructure decision they make.
2023 and beyond
Looking ahead, Wi-Fi and indoor 5G will continue to work side-by-side, complementing each other in large public venues. The next big thing will likely be a more formal fusion of the two platform technologies into a multi-access public and private network that supports public and private 5G, Wi-Fi, and even Internet of Things (IoT) devices. This kind of converged platform efficiently leverages the strengths of both wireless technologies, eliminating the need to operate and maintain two parallel systems and greatly simplifying vendor relationships, reducing the risk in making the whole thing work.
I believe that wireless convergence for 5G and Wi-Fi lays just ahead in the near future. As 2023 progresses, I’m confident that large public venues will be among the first case studies for the next big thing.