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Scaling from 74,000 to over one million should make a difference, shouldn’t it?

5G will be using the latest antenna generation with massive MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output). The cells will be on average way smaller than today’s cells, hence many more antennas will have to be used. Image credit: RCR Wireless News

In Italy there are, as of January 2019, some 74,000 antennas covering the whole Country. As a matter of fact, there are many more antennas that go unaccounted for, the ones in private homes and offices sustaining WiFi communications, plus many more embedded in devices for short range communications, like the ones in credit cards! If we were to account for all of them the number would grow into tens of millions, and that is just for Italy (by the way, also each and every cell phone has an antenna!).
As new telecommunications systems knock at the door, like the 5G, the number of those 74,000 antennas is going to increase significantly. The reason is easy to understand. Today we are using most of the spectrum below 2 GHz (a good part of that is actually below 1 GHz), that was the easiest and most effective part of spectrum available so it was taken up. We started with even lower frequencies but as the processing power increased so our capability to manage higher frequency grew and we took them to support more communication capacity. Now our processing capability has grown even further and we can push the envelope beyond tens of GHz. As frequency grows the propagation capability decreases for a given power of the signal (and there are strict power limits to safeguard health, 6V per meter in Italy, one of the most stringent) which means that the area covered by an antenna gets smaller and smaller. To cover Italy with a dense 5G network, delivering the high throughput for which it has been designed (up to 1Gbps) we would need over 1 million cells. This is placing a huge economic burden on Operators making it most unlikely to happen in the short time.
Understanding this is important since this opens up a market opportunity to a variety of companies. It is most likely, and effective, to stimulate the participation of several players in the deployment and sharing of antennas and access gateways. Products can also serve as antennas and access gateways. Companies designing products will be designing them to connect to the network and some of these might be designed in a way to play an access gateway role, creating networks at the edges.
Clearly this is going to be a priority for municipalities, that can use public buses, illumination poles, garbage bins and more as access gateways, thus contributing to a massive infrastructuring of their cities.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently the Chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and up to September 2018 he was the Head of the EIT Digital Industrial Doctoral School. Previously, up to December 2011, he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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