The 1987 movie Wall Street conjures, for many, the image of protagonist Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) making deals on his comically large cell phone. Big and boxy by today’s standards, it featured an obtrusive, protruding antenna. At the time, mobile phones were generally inaccessible to all but the very rich, and the iconic image of the “brick” cell phone became associated with American wealth and 80’s excess.
Each year, as technology improved and mobile communication became more mainstream, cell phone antennas gradually shrank until they were virtually invisible. In the meantime, towering radio repeaters began to pepper the countryside and eventually became as much a part of the landscape as telephone poles and grain silos. The cellular network is so prevalent now that most people are hard-pressed to find areas that lack at least some coverage. The advent of 5G will take this trend further, with a dense array of advanced antennas (at least in urban areas) that will provide seamless communication with multiple devices.
5G is no longer on the horizon – it’s happening. With 5G, however, comes a new paradigm of communication that to operate will require more antennas in a denser array than ever previously seen. So, what will 5G antennas look like? Where will they be placed? When can we expect to start seeing them in our neighborhoods and cities?
Types Of Antennas
The cellular network functions by passing signals between a widespread collection of antennas, with each antenna responsible for communicating with the wireless devices within its immediate vicinity. One of the reasons mobile coverage has improved over the years is that this network of antennas, typically mounted on tall towers, has continued to expand. As cellular carrier frequencies have increased, the network of towers has had to become denser as well, because higher frequencies cannot travel as far. The network has also evolved – during the 3G, 4G, and LTE years – to include different types and densities of antennas.
Generally, cellular radio base stations (not the ones in devices themselves, but in the communication network) can be classified as “macro cells” or “small cells”. Macro cells pass signals over large geographic areas, usually over open spaces, and have a range of several miles. They are typically tall steel towers featuring several rectangular and round “drum” antennas from multiple service providers.
In more urban areas, buildings and other obstructions disrupt the increasingly high-frequency signals, so it became necessary to deploy a larger number of repeaters in closer proximity to where the signals are needed. These small cells can be recognized by their narrow rectangular antenna arrays. Small cells have a range of about a typical city block and are often found either alone or in small clusters on light poles or other existing structures.
Antennas inside devices are a different story. They are tiny, flat circuits that are installed as part of the internal circuitry of an end-user device like a mobile phone.
5G And Massive MIMO
It’s a common misconception that 5G technology will replace 4G the way 4G displaced the previous generations of networks. 5G will instead be integrated with the 4G network and enhance communication in denser population areas and regions of high demand. The relationship is complicated, and even within 5G there are different frequency bands and modes of operation. But one of the things that will set 5G apart is the use of massive MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) arrays. Massive MIMO, combined with beamforming to reduce interference, will allow each 5G small cell to communicate with multiple devices simultaneously.
To work as intended, 5G small cells need to be spaced about 500 feet apart and positioned to minimize obstruction to service areas. Like 4G small cells, Massive MIMO antennas will mostly be placed on utility poles and light poles – with supporting ground equipment underneath – but in a much denser configuration. The antennas themselves will be more square than the current narrow 4G antennas.
To deploy 5G in such a visible and ubiquitous manner, mobile carrier companies must first obtain permits to install the equipment on public infrastructure. Many communities are already pushing back against 5G, concerned not only about the potentially unsightly clutter in their neighborhoods, but also about any unknown health effects of the radiation they will produce. This pushback has already resulted in some 5G installation permits being temporarily blocked.
5G Rollout Update: July 2019
5G launched in select areas of Minneapolis and Chicago to much fanfare back in April (2019). Downtown Denver followed in June and is now up and running. Providence, Rhode Island is expected to be the next city to join 5G with a scheduled launch date in early July.
Here’s a summary of the 5G rollout thus far:
Cities currently with 5G: Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis
Coming in July: Providence
Expected in 2019: Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Des Moines, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Little Rock, Memphis, Phoenix, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Washington, D.C.