October 4, 2016 —
Until recently, I’m not sure I really understood or could explain 5G cellular technology; however, I’m now pretty sure it is carrier aggregation (CA). For the record, CA refers to using multiple bands to download data at much greater speeds. I could ramble on for pages about the various technologies involved and all the fun or cool stuff we engineers could pull off with it. Suffice it to say that, insofar as the effect on the tower industry is concerned, 5G will be significant.
First off, as you probably are probably experiencing, new macro tower construction is fairly stagnant. Current projects fall into two categories: small sites (including in-building wireless) and modifications to existing macro installations. I saw some antenna technology from a couple of vendors and was impressed with higher-level modulations and multiple-input, multiple output (MIMO) communications arrays.
Everything I normally read in the industry and in other business publications is hammering on the need for radio-frequency spectrum for 5G. FCC commissioners are testifying to Congress about the spectrum need and proselytizing from every soapbox they can find. The need for speed is real, and we will innovate and create solutions.
Nevertheless, I’m beginning to see a train wreck in slow motion on the horizon. Just as we had a push to move more of the RF components up the tower (remote radio heads, or RRUs), when it comes time for 5G deployments, we’re going to have to rework an incredible amount of what we’ve already installed. More tower modifications, including more antennas, more complex RF plumbing and more sail area (wind loading) represent the waves of the future. And current tower inventory will need to be complemented with a significant number of new structures. We’re going to find ourselves short of suitable antenna support structures, even in semi-urban and suburban areas.
Round 2 of the Incentive Auction: The Long Haul
On the topic of “this is not going to be as smooth as we had hoped,” Round 2 of the FCC incentive auction just kicked off with a lower spectrum-clearing target. The lower target will result in less spectrum becoming available for 5G, but it also helps to take us closer to finding the equilibrium between spectrum and money. Each round also means fewer TV stations to move, fewer towers to modify and quicker activation to get on the air for wireless carriers. I’m thinking there will be four or five rounds before the auction ends. I estimate it will be the beginning of 2018 before they close, and 39 more months to repack the TV stations. We’re in for the long haul now.
It is fun to hear the talk about Google in the media. Its public comments did not support continued fiber deployment. Google cited high cost, slow roll outs and other frustrations we’ve all run into before. Because it’s clear that Google is in the technology and content delivery game to win in the end, one would naturally conclude the company is going big in wireless. From what I can see, all pointers would say, “Yep.” Probably without using balloons with antennas or large-scale drones. I’m thinking Google will go more traditional with a lot of antennas on a lot of towers.
Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in tower inspections conducted in some complex environments. I’ve never seen the inner workings of power transmission facilities before. I’ve also never seen a more complex and challenging environment in which to construct a tower, either. If you have experience in this area, please be in touch. We would love for you to share something in AGL Magazine.