How 5G antennas will get built near you
5G is here, but it won't really flourish on next-generation phones and 5G connected cars until the network is built out. That physical network will be more vast and dense than that which powers current networks. It'll also cost as much as $750 billion worldwide over the next five years. Yet it comes at a time of unparalleled economic challenges that put every major project under harsh scrutiny. Now what?
"This is the biggest infrastructure project after the interstate highway system," says Sean Shahini, CEO of Inorsa, an engineering startup that focuses on lean, fast 5G network site builds. Those sites aren't just retrofits of existing 4G towers: Some will proceed easily, but "the range of (most of) our antennas is way less than with 4G, so instead of building 100 antennas, for example, to cover Manhattan, we have to build 5,000 to 20,000 antennas," says Shahini.
The reason 5G needs so many cellular antennas, or "small cells", is because it often uses higher frequency radio waves that have vast data capacity, but short range. Those high-frequency waves are also less likely to bend around buildings and obstacles than 4G signals, adding to the number of small cells needed to cover dense cities.
The other hurdle is what's behind those thousands of antennas. "The biggest piece is power and fiber, and it's not like one solution fits all," Shahini says, describing the challenge of pulling electrical wiring and high-speed fiber to thousands of cells. 5G technology also tends to use a mini data center at cell sites, capitalizing on 5G's low latency rather than sending all packets to remote servers.