Rolling out a new technology like 5G is not just time consuming, it’s also costly.
Telecom companies are expected to invest as much as $275 billion into 5G infrastructure before 2025 – the year analysts predict 5G will be fully operational.
The greatest expense of the 5G infrastructure are the small cell towers – the heart of 5G technology.
A 5G small cell is very different from its predecessor 4G towers referred to as macro cells. Since 5G towers don’t require much power, they can be made relatively small. A 5G cell tower is basically just a small box. While this is how most 5G implementations are turning out, some companies are burying antennas under manhole covers to extend their mobile network through the streets.
Inside a small cell is radio equipment necessary for transmitting data to and from connected devices. The antennas within the small cell are highly directional and use what’s called beamforming to direct attention to very specific areas around the tower.
These devices can also quickly adjust power usage based on the current load. This means when a radio is not in use, it will drop down into a lower power state in just a few milliseconds, and then re-adjust just as quickly when more power is needed.
5G small cells are fairly simple in design and can be installed in less than a few hours. This is very much unlike the beefier 4G towers that take much longer to install and get up and running.
The problem (and the expense) is that many small cell towers are needed in a true 5G network. Typically, small cell installations involve 20 to 25 small cells per square mile. This is due to the nature of millimeter waves, which are essential for super-fast 5G speeds. Millimeter waves don’t travel very far and have penetration issues so an inordinate number of direct line of sight relay stations are required.
Since 5G cell towers are so small, they can be positioned in ordinary places like on light poles, the tops of buildings, and even street lights. This translates into less traditional-looking towers but also potentially more eyesores nearly everywhere you look.
Some municipalities have had issues with the masses of small cell towers necessary for 5G operations. This has on occasion resulted in heated zoning discussions – another factor that is expected to keep the 5G rollout rolling out slower than had permits been automatically issued.