Everything we hear about 5G sounds big: massive MIMO, gigabits per second, terabytes of data. Network operators know they need to support all this without commensurate increases in the size of wireless equipment. That’s why they’re focused on hardware solutions that enable new technologies in smaller form factors.
Small cells are of course the primary example of smaller radios and antennas, and all four of the nationwide carriers plan to deploy tens of thousands of small cells this year. But 5G will not be deployed exclusively through small cells; towers have a big role to play as well.
Tower owners are already seeing operators add new antennas that will support LTE today and eventually be upgraded through software to support 5G in the lower bands. Antennas that support massive MIMO and beamforming require multiple ports, and some of them are at least 8 feet tall and 2 feet wide. There’s a limit to the number of these that can be added to a tower, especially if they’re supplementing other antennas that are already there.
Equipment vendors realize that compact antenna solutions are needed for 5G. Radio manufacturers are developing integrated radio/antenna solutions, and they’re laser-focused on network efficiency.
Nokia has taken some of its chip designs in-house as it works to add network capacity without increasing the size of its hardware. Its new ReefShark chipset uses antenna elements based on the same radio frequency integrated circuits used in smartphones. Nokia says that by growing a mobile phone antenna instead of shrinking a macro antenna, it’s creating antenna elements that are significantly smaller than those in use today. Elimination of heat sinks also shrinks the antenna.
Silicon Valley startup Blue Danube is preparing to trial an active antenna that it says can support simultaneous beamforming over multiple frequency bands, helping operators support more users with a single compact antenna. Blue Danube, which is partially owned by AT&T, says its high definition active antenna solution enables operators to dynamically move radio signal to areas of high demand. By using hardware more efficiently, operators can support more users without adding more equipment.