The Antenna Boom: Small Cells, DAS Emerge As Key Enablers for 5G

Das Overview

The telecommunications industry is looking to deployed tens of thousands of antenna systems in an effort to support the upcoming wave of 5G wireless broadband systems, reports Rich Miller of Data Center Frontier. This rollout is expected to provide low-latency connections for the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and self-driving vehicles.

Telecom towers will have more high-power macrocells deployed on them despite the growing controversy of this tactic. It will be low-power antennas known as small cells and distributed antenna systems (DAS) that will predominately enable 5G however. The smaller equipment can be placed on buildings, street furniture and utility poles.

This expected rush of small cell and DAS deployments could impact data centers and cloud computing because of how much data new technologies can generate. This is especially true if self-driving cars become mainstream; the data required will be stored at centers and in turn increasing the demand for colocation and cloud computing capacity.

Deploying large-scale antennas for 5G wireless is not without its challenges however. In office buildings for example, there’s a lot of focus on connectivity, which has led to a shift in the economics of wireless infrastructure. This shift has led to calls for carriers, landlord and tenants to share the burden of the costs. Meanwhile on the consumer side, business who want to deploy the small cells have to come to agreements with local municipalities, which is a long difficult process, not to mention these companies are facing resistance from residents.

In an effort to avoid pushing back 5G deployment because of the antenna delay, the telecom industry is looking for legislative backup. The deployment issue had made its way to the White House where President Donald Trump has shown support for speeding up the antenna deployments. Currently, the debate is taking place all over the U.S.

Since deployment of the new antennas will be costly, economics will play a part in where extra small cells and DAS are place at the beginning. One highly debated spot is office buildings where Internet quality connectivity has become a factor in separating landlords from one another.

One of the major REIT’s senior vice president of information pointed out at the NYWSA Show, more technology clauses in leases that require building owners to have cellular coverage. Wireless, which once was an amenity is now a requirement.

A CIO from another major REIT, Boston Properties, sees cost sharing as a more workable approach in the future. He believes the building owners, tenants and carriers will have to work together in order for this opportunity to work.

The struggle between carriers, building owners and tenants isn’t the only challenge facing the antenna deployment. While Americans are excited about faster wireless everywhere, they aren’t as excited about the omnipresence of wireless antennas. That means, placement becomes an issue; antennas can’t be located anywhere that the signal can be interfered with, but on the other hand, installing new equipment such as poles that might impact landscape views will be occasionally met with resistance from residents.

Strategies to camouflage the antennas have included surrounding them with fake foliage so they look like trees, and embed them in sidewalks so they resemble manhole covers.

Despite the initial challenges, bureaucratic red tape and resident resistance, the 5G deployment and the antennas that come with can be beneficial. Analysts see fiber connectivity positioning small cells and DAS as entryways to additional services and revenue, which could offset the costs to install them.

If these small cells and DAS systems are placed on rooftops, they can increase coverage in neighborhoods and if used indoors, people attending games or concerts at big stadiums or who are in conference centers can still get good cell coverage.

“Until now, DAS has been a one-trick pony in supporting mobile phones,” AT&T Regional Manager for Network Planning Dave Sampat told Data Frontier Center. “As we support more things and transform more businesses, that value changes. It’s now a utility, and an expectation for your customers and tenants.”

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