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5G Wireless

ACRP Periodic Report on Transformative Technologies at Airports
- May 7, 2021

Technology Description

Connected devices have continued their trajectory of growth, with almost 16 billion mobile devices expected in 2022.[1] As users and devices compete for more speed and network capacity, network connectivity will be of increased importance. 5G New Radio is the fifth generation of cellular wireless network technology, better known as 5G. 5G networks can provide the increased speed users want while also offering new functionality to support connected devices of the future. This includes new technology such as extended reality glasses for first responders (Figure 1) and fully realized self-driving vehicles that can self-sense the environment and communicate with other vehicles, requiring no human input.

Figure 1: Qualcomm Conceptual First Responder eXtended Reality (XR) Glasses [2]

Full-scale deployments of 5G network infrastructure are still in their infancy, with the first large-scale deployment occurring in South Korea in April 2019.[3] 5G continues to garner worldwide attention as the first 5G capable devices have started to be released by manufacturers. Airport operators must be aware of both the potential benefits of 5G networks and the design deployment challenges as the 5G technology continues to advance over the next 10+ years.

Along with a speed increase, 5G offers notable improvements over current 4G and Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks. Cisco expects that 5G will support 10% of network traffic by 2023.[4] 5G brings three notable benefits over current networks: increased data speeds, decreased latency, and more device bandwidth.[5] These features are what will support many of the new technologies 5G networks can enable. 5G download speeds can be as high as 20 Gbps (gigabits per second) on dedicated lines, with users expecting to see speeds starting out at 100 megabits per second (Mbps). This is much higher than the 50 Mbps currently offered by 4G LTE networks. 5G’s increased data speeds, high responsiveness (low latency), and expanded bandwidth combine to provide new use cases beyond solely mobile communications. To support these use cases, 5G is split into three main networking frequency bands, each having their own pros and cons to support various use cases.

Airport deployments can be in two primary forms: a carrier distributed antenna system (DAS) or a soon-to-be-available private 5G OnGo network (see here for more about the OnGo Alliance). Airport carrier DAS deployments of 5G have begun across the world. Tampa International Airport deployed a new 5G (and updated 4G) carrier DAS network for their passengers just ahead of the Super Bowl in February 2021. This enabled customers of Verizon and AT&T to access the high speeds and bandwidth supported by these carriers while they pass through Tampa’s airport. The airport plans to use shared revenue from the network infrastructure, installed and owned by Crown Castle, to continue to improve the passenger experience.[6]

Since the adoption of cellular phones, airport operators have been tasked with accommodating the growing data needs of passengers. 5G wireless technology promises to make incredible strides in exceeding and redefining wireless service capabilities. Many 5G capabilities can be achieved with network deployments similar to 4G networks. However, the vastly superior speeds and capabilities of 5G technology are realized using the highest frequencies, in the millimeter wave (mmWave) band. These are licensed frequencies owned by the mobile network carriers.

Plans to use these frequencies must consider this in environments where carriers have a presence. Licensing and mmWave services bring new challenges, such as an increased number of antennae in a given space (antenna density) and licensing considerations. Antenna density increases cost and makes it difficult for many existing buildings to easily accommodate the inclusion of these 5G capabilities. Airport operators must also consider the wireless strategy for their own airports and ensure they have planned into the future for how to support their desired use cases in a wireless environment that is getting highly saturated with Wi-Fi, licensed, and unlicensed networks from the airport and its tenants.

As was the case with evolutionary advancements in Wi-Fi technology, airport operators should continue to monitor advancements in 5G not only for impacts to airport-related use cases but also for the myriad technologies 5G will eventually support. 5G will drive technology solutions that will have significant impact on airport operations, the beginnings of which are starting to become visible with pilots and early deployments of autonomous vehicles, the Internet of things, and robotics. Current 5G wireless solutions may prove difficult for airport operators to incorporate into existing buildings, and they should be considered early in design when starting new construction projects.

This Publication classifies 5G in the Advanced Transformation Tier due to the lack of current deployments, large potential technology solution impacts, and the challenges with installing 5G infrastructure. Airport organizations will continue to be impacted by the benefits and challenges related to 5G for years to come.


Impacts of 5G networks on airports can vary widely depending on whether the airport purchased and installed the network and whether 5G capabilities in the millimeter wave (mmWave) frequencies are being offered for public and/or airport use. Until real-world deployments begin, airport operators will likely not understand the full impact that 5G deployments will have on their airport environment. This article outlines many of the high-profile impacts airport operators may expect from 5G as their usage increases, and it notes the associated network attributes driving the impact. Following the impact list, two notable impacts are detailed further.



  • Increased infrastructure costs (when compared to previous deployments) due to increased equipment density (airport-owned with mmWave services)
  • Changes to the built environment will further increase project costs (airport-owned with mmWave services)
  • Changes to the built environment will increase installation disruptions and challenges (mmWave services)
  • Insights enable increased performance and efficiencies in staffing (airport-owned)

Technical/Infrastructure Readiness

  • Higher Wireless Access Point density requirements compared to previous networking systems (mmWave services)
  • New network design required to deal with signal propagation differences (mmWave services)
  • Requirements for neutral host technology to support multiple networks without increasing networking equipment (DAS technology)
  • Various wireless protocols having different characteristics (finite wireless spectrum)

Process/Skill Set Changes

  • Planning to incorporate new use cases into processes (airport use of private 5G network)
  • Previously wired technology systems may soon have access to wireless networking, offering new use cases and arrangements (airport use of private 5G network)

Passenger Experience/Passenger Process

  • Must provide the necessary networking capacity to support the growing data needs of passengers (carrier DAS, mmWave)


  • Technology provides carrier-grade security to communications (carrier DAS, private 5G network)

Airport Design/Construction

  • Provides flexibility to devices that were previously wired that may now be wireless, including workstations and kiosks (airport use of private 5G network)

Revenue/Business Model

  • Offering paid tier of highspeed data to passengers (airport-owned private 5G network, public accessibility)
  • Offering paid tier of highspeed data to airport tenants (airport-owned private 5G network, public and/or operational accessibility)
  • Provides improved and new revenue generating services to customers (carrier DAS, private 5G network)


  • Current restrictions on networking equipment made in China

Featured Impacts

Infrastructure costs: Current 5G networks require an extensive amount of infrastructure to operate efficiently at scale. This added infrastructure will be inflated when compared to previous wireless infrastructure deployments. Airport operators must account for this cost increase in new budgets when considering the installation of a 5G network (airport-owned, mmWave).

New wireless networking design: The increased frequency ranges used by 5G networks have different wireless propagation characteristics when compared to past networking protocols. Most notably, the higher-speed frequencies offered by 5G have a much shorter connection range. Airport operators must account for this when investing in the deployment of a 5G network. Airport design must accommodate a higher density of wireless antennae to offer sufficient network connectivity (airport-owned, mmWave).


To better understand 5G wireless technology, airport operators should gain a better understanding of its specific attributes. This article explores the operating factors of 5G and some of its usage characteristics. Understanding these attributes will help airport operators determine applicable use cases for 5G and how their organization can support it.

Effect on Other Program Area/Technologies

5G has the potential to heavily impact current and future technology solutions. The faster data speed, reduced latency, and increased bandwidth offered by 5G can support solutions unable to effectively operate on current networking infrastructure. Notably, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, and other data-reliant technologies can incorporate 5G to maintain sufficient levels of connectivity. 5G’s proliferation provides new opportunities to explore emerging technology solutions that leverage 5G’s enhanced characteristics in the millimeter wave (mmWave) frequencies.

Computing Power and Hardware Requirements

The most notable requirement of 5G is the extensive amounts of hardware required to support large-scale deployment of its services in the mmWave frequencies. The antenna density necessary to support such an installation is much higher than for previous wireless network protocols. The installation of antenna infrastructure must be strategically designed to provide a stable connection across the chosen deployment location. The antenna infrastructure also has the potential to impact the current design and equipment within the deployment location. Before deploying a 5G network, consideration must be given to the use cases planned, the limitations of the current built environment, and the presence of mobile carriers that own the licenses to the mmWave frequencies.

Effect on Multiple Industries

The use of 5G networks can potentially proliferate across multiple industries looking to develop use cases that can leverage the benefits of the network. Industries including entertainment, manufacturing, and travel each have various use cases or technology solutions that can be improved through incorporating 5G networks. The large market for 5G has been driving investment in the development of the technology along with research to identify more novel use cases.

Use Cases/Business Effect

With every new or emerging technology, there are two basic questions an airport operator asks: “How can my airport use this?” and “How does this affect my business, even if my airport doesn’t wish to use it for our own benefit?” This article provides answers to both of these questions, addressing the airport uses cases and business effect of 5G wireless technology.

Use Cases

As 5G advances to a point of being cost-effective with widespread adoption, potential use cases become available for airport operators to incorporate into their organizations.

Passenger Mobile Device Support

Providing consumers with highspeed data to mobile devices has been one of the most heavily marketed features of 5G. Whether through airport-owned or third-party–owned networks, airport organizations can provide the infrastructure and access for carriers to extend their 5G networks on the airport property. As 5G network deployments increase in cities, passengers will expect to access the data speeds they use daily while on their airport journeys.

High-Speed Private Airport Network

Using OnGo technology, airport organizations can implement their own private 5G network to support airport-controlled processes and equipment. Airport operators can leverage 5G’s characteristics to support new technology solutions or enable enhanced features in current deployments. Airport operators can also investigate technology solutions reliant on 5G networks for high-quality performance, including the Internet of things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, and mixed reality solutions. Airport organizations looking to support new technology solutions may investigate the use of private 5G networks on the airport property. Currently, it is not likely that an airport’s carrier distributed antenna system (DAS) can be combined with a private 5G OnGo network. Additionally, if an airport operator plans to utilize mmWave frequencies (which can only be done through a carrier-licensed spectrum), it especially needs to coordinate with carriers for indoor and outdoor utilization.

IoT Networking

A notable feature of 5G wireless networks is the increased bandwidth available to users. This increased bandwidth allows a network to service vast quantities of devices. The added bandwidth is necessary as IoT devices increase in their prevalence. The bandwidth available through 5G networks can connect the thousands of connected sensors, passenger processing equipment, and building infrastructure across an airport’s property. Capabilities in this area can vary greatly with access to mmWave frequencies.

Business Effect

Whether or not an airport chooses to employ 5G for its own benefit, 5G use may increase to the point at which the airport organization must deploy a publicly accessible, carrier DAS to counteract negative passenger or tenant feedback.

Passenger and Airport Tenant Data Preferences

Passengers may soon demand 5G caliber speeds when traveling through the airport. As mobile device use increases, airport organizations must adapt their networking infrastructure to provide pleasant experiences for travelers. This need becomes more important as aspects of the passenger process are increasingly done on mobile devices. Organizations must keep tabs on trends surrounding mobile device use to determine if adjustments are needed to networking infrastructure.

In addition to passengers’ data needs, tenants and vendors who operate in the airport may also desire access to 5G compatible networks. As commercial groups deploy technology solutions that leverage the benefits of 5G networks, they will request sufficient networking infrastructure to maintain operational performance levels.

Tiered Approach

Airport operators interested in new or emerging technologies, such as private 5G wireless technology for operational use, will differ in their levels of risk tolerance. Some organizations are comfortable at the forefront of technology and have the resources to support innovation. Other organizations are interested in simply exploring how they can use 5G within their limited resources. Regardless, to avoid unintended loss of control and wireless spectrum issues, all airport operators should develop a wireless strategy that at least minimally identifies the airport’s posture, desired wireless capabilities/needs, and high-level policy for its wireless environment.

This article takes a tiered approach to 5G technology, providing use cases that are separated by the following innovation tiers: Reactive, Strategic, and Innovative.


Network Infrastructure Deployed and Managed by Carriers

An airport organization can allow wireless carriers to install the necessary equipment within the airport to support a carrier-owned cellular network system. In most cases, it is best to have a lead carrier coordinate with the other carriers to design and install a distributed antenna system (DAS) that supports, at a minimum, the major carriers’ services. This network will be owned and managed by the mobile carriers for the purposes of extending their services into the airport to serve the carriers’ customers. This provides passengers who are paying for 5G mobile service plans with access to these services within the airport. In exchange, carriers will usually agree to support other operational radio communication (800 MHz [megahertz] radio system) on the DAS at no charge. Negotiation is usually around the length of the agreement, with carriers seeking as much time as possible.


Internet of Things Networking

An airport organization can invest the resources to develop an extensive Internet of things (IoT) roadmap for connected devices throughout the airport property. Airport operators should give necessary thought to the networking requirements needed to support these devices, such as the improved data speed and increased bandwidth provided by 5G and the benefits of a private cellular network. Private cellular networks are a very feasible, relatively quick to install communications connectivity option with many airport transformational benefits that will reap high value dividends for years to come.


Multi-protocol Deployment

Multiple wireless technologies and protocols are needed to support the range of technology use cases available in an airport environment, including Wi-Fi, NFC (near field communications), Bluetooth, CoAP (Constrained Application Protocol), MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport), XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol), and more. Protocols focused on IoT devices can have various characteristics, like reduced power consumption or long-range communication, that benefit different deployment scenarios. A wireless strategy and plan that address all manner of wireless communications at the airport must be developed to ensure the airport is able to properly manage and maximally leverage its critical and highly valuable finite radio spectrum, especially given that a number of tenants will likely seek to implement their own networks.

Industry Status

Exploring 5G wireless technology deployments in both aviation and non-aviation industries can provide airport operators with a better understanding of the technology as a whole. This article outlines the current state of 5G technology from both perspectives.

Aviation Industry

Cellular Distributed Antenna System Deployment

Airport operators are beginning to deploy smaller- and medium-scale 5G-capable cellular distributed antenna systems (DASs) within the airport to extend carrier networks onto the airport property and within airport buildings. 5G’s fastest networking speeds and lowest reductions in latency require a greater density (number of antennae in a given space) than previously required by cellular technologies. In preparation for the 2021 Super Bowl, Tampa International Airport—the first United States airport to offer 5G mobile speeds—deployed a neutral host DAS that was owned and operated by a third-party provider using a revenue sharing agreement. A neutral host DAS can be deployed and owned by a mobile carrier, a third-party provider, or an airport operator.[6]

Private Cellular Networks

Private cellular networks—using OnGo technology to access newly government-provided shared spectrum in the CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) band of frequencies—can be cost effectively deployed by and for airports to operate like a Wi-Fi network, but with the capabilities of cellular technology. Currently, it is not likely this network can be combined with a DAS network, but they can be connected. The Dallas Love Field Airport was an industry pilot project granted permission by the Federal Communications Commission to deploy prior to formal readiness.[7] Some airports, like the Houston Airport System, are executing active projects to deploy.[8]

Non-aviation Industry

Small-Scale Interior Deployments

5G has been deployed in large events for special test cases. Cellular providers have set up temporary deployments at events to showcase the technology and test performance.[9]

City Rollouts

Cellular providers are beginning to activate the first iterations of 5G networks in U.S. cities, and they are exploring ways to effectively deploy the new equipment necessary to support a satisfactory 5G experience for their customers. They are currently grappling with the challenges faced when deploying large-scale public networks.

Technology Interaction

Technology solutions may enable or be supported by other types of technologies. In some cases, the advancement of one technology may be vital to the effective use of another. This article highlights some of the high-level ways that 5G wireless technology may leverage the functionality of another technology or be used to enhance the functionality of another technology. As solution development continues, integrations with other technologies may become more evident.

Internet of Things

5G offers the networking improvements necessary for Internet of things (IoT) devices to operate at their full potential. The higher speeds and increased bandwidth of 5G networks support extensive deployment of IoT devices. As connected devices become more numerous, airport operators will need to explore the deployment of 5G wireless technology to support connected solutions.

Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) require extensive network communication to operate in a real-world environment. 5G networks provide the reduced latency and bandwidth required for AV solutions to operate as needed.

Technology Barriers

As with some other technologies noted in this Publication, there are market forces or obstacles in development that present barriers to the deployment and widespread adoption of 5G wireless technology. Keeping abreast of these barriers can help airport operators know when to expect to see wider use of this technology in the public and when they should look to reassess it for their own use. This article outlines the current state of 5G barriers.

Accommodation for Infrastructure Requirements

Current iterations of 5G networks utilizing millimeter wave services require an extensive amount of networking equipment and have large infrastructure and budgetary requirements. Though private OnGo networks and some 5G carrier service networks are not as challenging, these issues make it difficult or impossible for airport operators to deploy such comprehensive 5G services across the full airport property due to building and infrastructure constraints. Airport organizations must include 5G infrastructure in the requirements of new construction while identifying ways to cost-effectively retrofit the current built environment to achieve the comprehensive capabilities of 5G.

Development for Central Host Equipment

Separate carrier network installations require an extensive amount of building space, power, and cooling. Neutral hosting equipment is needed to allow multiple carriers to operate on consolidated network infrastructure. The limited capacity of a building to support the wireless infrastructure necessary for a 5G network makes consolidated equipment a requirement to fit within current constraints. Neutral host equipment will bring much-needed space savings and cost reductions to the installation of 5G wireless networking.

Device Compatibility

Cisco predicts that 5G connections will account for only 10% of global mobile connections by 2023,[10] and only a small fraction of devices currently in use are 5G capable. An increase in market adoption for these devices will be needed to drive further investment in the infrastructure required to support the technology.