5G has become a very different beast for the industry to tame than what’s come before it. Among all the hype and speculation for what will be possible in the future, there are immediate challenges being faced by those on the front line. And by looking at the current direction the industry is headed in, it’s easy to see where and why these problems have arisen.
The inherent challenge associated with 5G is that, by its very nature and the use cases it's designed to support, this next generation of mobile technology will demand network densification at a rate that poses an issue. As subscriber data usage habits continue to place additional pressure on mobile networks, operators will need to expand their existing infrastructure while also gearing up for commercial 5G roll outs in tandem – straightforward in theory, but much more difficult in practice.
Technical and economic challenges
A key factor behind this complexity is due to new hardware that’ll be required to make 5G a success. While there’s no question that high performance active antennas will have a key role to play in supporting future deployments, there is a question mark over how they can be added to already crowded cell sites.
Site constraints are not new, but they are a growing thorn in the sides of operators around the world. Particularly in dense urban locations where they’re often serving several different bands and operators already. When you also consider that acquiring entirely new cell sites is far from easy, and even when it is possible it sparks a long and complex negotiation process, it’s no surprise that operators are being confronted with a technical headache in making 5G a reality.
And that’s not the only headache they face. There’s also an economic issue to be overcome with the commercial roll out of next generation hardware, driven by what’s come before it. The fact that huge investments into 4G are still being recouped has had a knock-on effect on the capital expenditure available for new hardware. In fact, research from Rethink Technology earlier this year found that operators will be looking to spend half of what they outlaid during 4G’s comparable roll out in the early years of 5G.
The role of modularity in tackling this problem
So, with these issues combined, that leaves us with a space vs cost vs performance problem that needs to be addressed in a more imaginative way than what’s come before it. This particular speed bump in the evolution of the mobile sector also poses the question of how we’ll be able to deploy new active antennas at the scale needed to support data demand and the variety of advanced use cases on the horizon.
For operators working to deploy 5G, or LTE-A and 5G-ready, active antennas onto existing sites more efficiently, in order to overcome these hurdles, this is where hardware modularity comes into its own. An easy way to see how operators stand to benefit from this in practice is by looking at how they’re turning to modularity to address the active antenna space issue at existing cell sites by combining passive and active systems.
Deploying active antennas at scale
Since combining existing passive arrays or “stacking” them to create space for new active antennas has negative performance trade-offs, a better option that takes advantage of the latest developments in hardware design is being used.Because active antennas already offer a degree of system efficiency, many carriers are looking to take this concept one step further, which innovative hardware vendors are capitalising upon.
Newer antenna technologies, such as Active Passive Antenna systems, have modularity at their core as they allow operators to combine a 5G active antenna with a passive base station antenna that’s already used for legacy networks. It’s a way to introduce a layer of active antennas onto existing macro sites without increasing the overall antenna count per sector. However, modularity in this sense doesn’t only mean existing systems can be replaced with what is effectively a two-in-one system that can address the lack of space. It also stands to benefit how operators expand their networks in the future.
With new technology being built upon a modular design, new active antennas can be deployed in stages. For example, this could mean that the passive element is installed and made operational at the cell site first, with the active antenna added to that unit at a later date. In light of the infrastructure headache that operators face in relation to cost challenges, this approach is the key to adopting a “pay as you grow” strategy instead. It’s a way to spread the up-front cost and also streamline maintenance and upgrade paths in the future.
From 5G hype to 5G reality
Ultimately, as the 5G era takes hold, and as the use cases it’s already become synonymous with start to become tangible, operators will need more flexibility over how they upgrade and densify their networks than ever before. For those looking ahead and starting to expand their networks today, even if it’s in using active antennas for LTE-A, hardware modularity represents a blueprint to this success.
It’s a way to easily introduce new infrastructure when required and will dramatically simplify the roll out of next-generation services in the future. And, although we’re still in the process of moving from 5G hype to 5G reality, there’s no doubt that hardware modularity will have a key role to play in making that possible.