Building a cell tower is typically time consuming, requiring not only permits and the construction of a high perch for new wireless network hardware, but also less obvious wired infrastructure including power and fiber data lines. Today, Verizon and Ericsson announced the successful test of an alternative solution for the 5G era: a battery-powered millimeter wave cell site that can be rapidly deployed for emergencies or to temporarily bolster a 5G network awaiting permanent fiber or power cabling.
The solution depends on Integrated Access Backhaul (IAB) technology, which Verizon said last year would be a key tool to expanding its still-nascent 5G network. IAB enables carriers to allocate some of the millimeter wave spectrum that would normally be used for tower-to-device communications to instead relay data between towers, one of which is connected via cabling to the network’s core. Consequently, a single traditional cell tower at one location could wirelessly support the aggregated device data sending and receiving needs — also known as “backhaul” — of multiple towers.
IAB is a component of the long-awaited 5G standard’s Release 16, which was recently approved by industry organization 3GPP. It doesn’t seek to replace traditional and still important fiber connections between cell towers, which enable massive quantities of data to be transmitted over networks, but gives carriers the ability to set up a completely mobile 5G cell site in an area that doesn’t yet have power and/or fiber. This could give first responders immediate access to 5G’s ultra high bandwidth and low latency for emergency drone operations or video conferences, while Verizon or other carriers work with partners and local governments to install permanent wired infrastructure.
One of IAB’s benefits is that the millimeter wave spectrum allocated to backhaul can be instantly reallocated to devices once fiber infrastructure is in place, simultaneously bolstering device and network performance. That’s a smart improvement for millimeter wave spectrum, which prior to the 5G era was widely viewed as unusable for consumer devices and instead was used for narrow applications. Verizon notes that while it’s still betting heavily — billions of dollars — on fiber, IAB will enable it to launch 5G services faster at specific locations, “then fill in the essential fiber at a later time.”