By Mike Montgomery
It’s hard to remember, but a little more than a decade ago flip phones were the height of mobile phone innovation. Texting via a numerical keypad was all the rage and only a handful of mobile devices could even access the internet.
The difference between that time and today is remarkable. Now we do everything on our phones – staying in touch with friends via video chat, keeping up with family on social media, banking and even watching movies. A lot of these advances have come from improved device technology, but many have come from upgrades to the networks that power our devices to make room for the extra data needed to keep us hyper-connected.
For many of us, 4G isn’t the marvel it used to be. Dropped calls, slow downloads and sinking number of bars have become more prevalent as we continue to add more and more devices to our wireless networks. And guess what? Our networks are going to continue to get more crowded – according to projections, in North America alone mobile data traffic will reach 6.4 Exabytes per month by 2021.
The good news is, there is a solution to our capacity problems, and that solution is already underway – upgrade both our network and the infrastructure that powers it. Let’s start with the network upgrade. The next evolution of our mobile networks will be 5G, but in reality 5G will be more of a revolution.
You see, 5G is expected to be 100 times faster and support 100 times the capacity of 4G. The benefits to users are obvious – instantaneous video downloads, fewer dropped calls, zero lag in live video – but 5G will also be a major boost for the U.S. economy. Accenture predicts that 5G will bring with it $500 billion in GDP growth by making smart cities a reality. 5G is the key to faster speeds and more connections points, which will ultimately help cities use less energy through smart grids, limit commute times and traffic fatalities by powering self-driving cars, allow cities to deploy sensors that will instantaneously alert police to things like gunshots, and help make emergency services more efficient.
However, 5G is not available to the public yet and the rollout of the network will take several years, which obviously doesn’t do much for our immediate capacity issue. What will help immediately, and is also an absolute necessity to making 5G a reality, is the modernization of our communications infrastructure.
While we wait for the 5G revolution, cities can begin to reap the immediate 4G boosting benefits of new wireless antennas known as small cells. Small cells are exactly what they sound like, small, low-powered nodes located near the end user that add much needed capacity to existing 4G networks while simultaneously laying the groundwork for 5G – small cells will literally serve as the backbone of 5G networks. Thanks to their size and ability to be camouflaged, small cells can be placed on utility poles, traffic lights, even under the seats in a stadium.
London is already doing this – building out a network of small cells to improve 4G coverage in the city. According to Techradar:
“As the finance capital of Europe, it was seen as unacceptable to have poor mobile coverage thanks to the numerous tall buildings blocking signals. Small cells were identified as the ideal solution.”
London expects to have 400 small cells by March 2019.
The essential point, small cells help bridge the gap between 4G and 5G while improving the customer experience right away. Installing a robust small cell network now is a rare win-win for cities by allowing them to deal with the immediate growth of data traffic – which climbed 238% in the last two years alone – while laying the groundwork for 5G.