Traditional antennas are passive devices that use metal rods, capacitors, and conductors. Active antennas and MIMO are key to differentiating 5G from previous wireless networks.
Mobile network operators worldwide are beginning their initial rollouts of 5G network services, surfacing difficulties in how to deploy 5G mobile networks. In order to deliver faster speeds to subscribers, 5G standards require more complex antenna designs and deployment strategies, according to ABI Research's Rise & Outlook of Antennas in 5G report.
How mobile network operators worldwide are deploying 5G
According to the report, network operators in Japan and Korea are relying heavily on the 3.5 GHz band, also called the C-Band, to provide 5G nationally. "This could potentially require up to 4x the number of existing cell sites currently being used," according to the report, "although solutions such as Huawei's UL/DL decoupling could mitigate the limitations. There are plans in place, however, to use small cells in such a way to attain that goal." In the first month of 5G availability in South Korea, 260,000 people subscribed across the country's three mobile carriers.
While small cells are useful for densely populated areas, and therefore more applicable in a metropolis environment like Tokyo or Seoul, increasing the number of cell sites can be expensive, making it not cost-effective to deploy in rural or suburban locations. "Particularly crucial will be fixed wireless access, and the ability to reach out to residential communities and small businesses in urban and rural communities, providing coverage that is effectively equivalent to fiber optic," the report states.
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The use of millimeter wave (mmWave) bands is happening first in North America, with AT&T and Verizon utilizing the technology. Considerations for transitioning spectrum allocations currently in use to deliver 4G LTE and legacy 3G services will happen "over the next several years," on a country-by-country basis.
Initial 5G mobile network deployments are non-standalone, requiring the presence of other networks to connect, though utilizing the 5G connection on demand. This is beneficial for smartphones, as it can serve to increase battery life, as early 5G modems, like early 4G LTE modems, are relatively power hungry. 5G traffic is expected to eclipse 4G by 2026, according to the report.
The importance of antenna design and MIMO to increase throughput
Newer smartphone models, like the Samsung Galaxy S9 and iPhone X, use 4x4 MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) antennas to increase throughput—the amount of data a phone can download, otherwise called bandwidth. Massive MIMO technology will increase with the rise of 5G, with 8x2 and 8x8 configurations in the near-term, and 16x16, 32x32, and 64x64 configurations, or higher, over the next several years.
MIMO adoption will also be driven by "active antennas," which include active components, not just metal rods, capacitors, and conductors. Active antennas are expected to "to grow from nearly 6% in 2017 to over 10% by 2021," driven by MIMO and Massive MIMO configurations, according to the report.
For more on the changing state of wireless networks, learn why wireless ISPs are still necessary in the age of 5G, and why evidence of backdoors in Huawei equipment collapse under light scrutiny.
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