5G has been touted as a monumental technological development that could eventually connect and digitize everything in our lives. But that doesn't mean people actually want to see it at work.
"Aesthetics have become extremely important," said Mike Fabbri, VP of cell site solutions and services at wireless equipment and services provider CommScope.
Fabbri is in charge of CommScope's three-year-old "Metro Cell" business, which has so far helped to deploy roughly 10,000 4G and 5G transmission sites around the US. However, most of those sites aren't the traditional, 100-foot-tall macro cell towers that most people are familiar with when it comes to cellphones, as you'll see in the slideshow below.
Fabbri is increasingly working to deploy "small cells," which are basically mini cell towers that are roughly the size of a pizza box and sit atop street lights, rooftops, traffic signals and other so-called "street furniture."
Many expect the small cell market to explode in the coming years as operators work to improve their wireless networks with 5G technology and millimeter-wave spectrum. But the proliferation of small cells also raises the specter of unsightly and vaguely ominous mechanical gizmos looming over neighborhoods around the country.
"The concept of 'not in my backyard' has existed for years," Fabbri acknowledged.
"Yes, people do not want to see these things," agreed Peter Raabe, strategy director with wireless networking equipment supplier RFS.
That's why cities from Baltimore to Arvada, Colo., are taking steps to require companies like AT&T, Verizon and CommScope to make some attempt to obscure, disguise or camouflage the small cells they're installing. "Small Cell Facilities shall use camouflage design techniques including, but not limited to the use of materials, colors, textures, screening, landscaping, or other design options that will blend the Small Cell Facilities to the surrounding natural setting," according to new regulations in Colorado.
After all, news articles about "mysterious boxes" popping up in residents' front yards isn't the kind of press local officials or wireless industry executives want to deal with.
If there was any remaining doubt about the importance of this trend, just look at Ericsson's annual report for 2018. The company -- one of the world's largest suppliers of wireless networking equipment -- inked a total of four joint ventures that year. One of them was a $7 million purchase of 29% of ConcealFab, a Colo.-based startup that specializes in "concealment solutions for 4G and 5G deployments."
Uncovering the opportunity
Raabe, with vendor RFS, is based in Germany and works on wireless equipment deployment projects all over the world with gear from all the big vendors. "We see this in China, we see this in Europe, we see this in the US," he said of the concealment issue.
"It changes the business model," he acknowledged, explaining that the cost of camouflage must often be calculated into the overall cost of building increasingly dense 5G networks.
That said, Raabe noted that concealment issues play a role in only a small percentage of RFS's global network-construction efforts, though he declined to offer any specific numbers. "It is increasing," he said, "but it will not dominate."
In the US, CommScope's Fabbri declined to say what percentage of his company's sites are concealed. But he did say that CommScope offers three basic concealment techniques: hiding equipment at the top of a pole, in the middle of a pole or at the bottom of a pole. And he said different areas of the US prefer different configurations: On the West Coast, he said, municipalities prefer equipment on the top, while in the Eastern or Mid Atlantic regions they often like the equipment in the middle of the pole.
"Sometimes the beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Fabbri said.
Iris Troiano, a director for Metro Cell solutions at CommScope, added that deployments also can vary depending on what spectrum bands an operator is using and which vendors are supplying the transmission equipment.
But the goal, Troiano explained, is to arrive at a handful of "standard solutions." She said most cities often settle on two or three basic types of configurations for small cells, and then simply re-use those designs at each site. That helps keeps things manageable as the number of small cell applications stretches into the hundreds, or potentially thousands.
"Municipalities drive towards standards," she said.
"People do want to increase the data speeds that they get, but they do not necessarily want to see the infrastructure that provides this," RFS's Raabe noted.
That's certainly clear given the number of communities that have rallied against small cell installations near homes or schools over fears cellular transmissions can cause health problems. Industry and regulatory officials have argued that such fears are unfounded, but these ongoing concerns have nonetheless undoubtedly slowed the installation of such equipment throughout the US.
In response, some cities have worked to proactively educate residents on the issue. "Legally, the City of Arvada cannot restrict the installation of the small cell sites," officials note on the city's website in warning about impending small cell installations in the Denver suburb. After all, FCC rules issued last year were geared toward smoothing the deployment of small cells in the US.
"Initially the facilities will meet current 4G technology, but will evolve to provide future 5G services and technology changes. If you would like to learn more about the safety of the facilities, visit FCC-Safety," the Arvada officials add.
Meantime, some in the wireless industry are looking for more creative solutions. For example, European operator Deutsche Telekom teamed with the Swedish Umeĺ Institute of Design and Covestro, a supplier of high-tech polymer materials, to develop some -- ahem -- unique concealments.
It's unclear whether this kind of 5G antenna will work in places like Baltimore or Colorado. But what is clear is that there's enough money tied up in the buildout of 5G to motivate the global wireless industry to find solutions, whatever the shape or form.