The demand for mobile connectivity and data is quickly moving beyond cellphones. Billions of ‘things’ are going online and will need to be supported by wireless networks. This growth will continue to put intense pressure on carriers’ networks to overcome many of today’s transmission challenges, and traditional cell towers just won’t be enough.  Plus, some of these towers are an eyesore, are difficult to build in dense urban environments, and take up valuable real estate.

For these reasons and more, carriers are getting a lot more creative in how wireless signals are managed and how networks are being designed. Technological advances have made it possible for wireless operators to set up and operate dense networks of small, high-capacity cells.  These cells come in all shapes and sizes, and they typically cost less to upgrade than networks of large cells do. Network equipment has gotten better as well: it is less costly to buy and operate, more flexible, and more powerful. Mobile operators can also use sophisticated analytical tools to gain insights into capturing the maximum value from these capital investments.

Farm Animals to the Rescue
New network technologies like 5G and LP-WAN will be able to support different types of services that will require a more customized and fine-tuned approach for delivering services, so service providers are starting to look up – literally – for building out their infrastructure.

AT&T is investing heavily in their Flying COW program. Yes, COWS, which stands for Cell on Wings. This program uses drones to support flying networks in the sky.  The drones are tethered to a land-based power source, but they can be installed quickly and moved around as needed.  While they aren’t intended to be permanent, when existing networks are overwhelmed or knocked out due to a natural disaster, this ‘flying network’ could prove to be life-saving.

Researchers at MIT are working on a drone-based ‘flying COW’ system that can be deployed directly from rescue equipment in times of natural disaster, like Hurricane Harvey that ravaged south Texas last month and knocked out cell towers in its path, leaving thousands without the ability to communicate.  Designed to be stored in the cargo hold of a fire truck or ambulance, crews will be able to launch drones within minutes of arriving at a disaster scene—long before any telecom company shows up. As the situation evolves, the drones would automatically reposition themselves as aerial base stations to maximize coverage.

In addition to flying COWS, Verizon has a full barnyard of options, including Cells on Light Trucks (CoLTS), HVACs on Roadside Equipment (HORSEs), Generators on a Trailer (GOATs), Repeaters on a Trailer (RATs) and Cell Repeaters on Wheels (CROWs), all lovingly stored in a “farmyard.”

Keeping with the animal theme, Google has a balloon based project called Loon that can supposedly transmit data between balloons located up in the stratosphere and back down to people on the ground, with connection speeds of up to 10 Mbps. This project is focused on bringing internet to some of the remotest and rural regions on earth.

Getting High
Consumer and enterprise drones will also need to be supported as another connected device, so carriers are working on how to deliver reliable 4G service up to 400 feet in the sky.  With companies like Amazon and others looking to have entire fleets of drones dropping packages at our doorstep, it’s expected that there will be 1.6 MILLION of them flying overhead by 2021. This will benefit all types of industries including construction, delivery, entertainment, insurance, news gathering, public safety, public utilities, railroads, real estate, agriculture, and wildlife conservation. The Swiss Post is even planning to use drones to deliver blood samples to hospitals, and service providers are using them to help repair their own cell towers and wireline networks.  What needs to be done, from a network perspective, to support this?

In addition to drones and balloons, airplanes are being used as another way to create a network in the sky, where each one acts as a mini satellite connected to others in a meshed network that can even extend to ships on the ocean.

Going Low
While many operators have looked to the sky,Swisscom is going low. They are piloting a trial that uses small cells embedded into their city streets. The radio is located under a manhole cover, with cables running underground through existing subterranean pipes that eventually connect to specialized, rugged antennas that are embedded into the roads of Bern, Switzerland. By building a network into the very road on which autonomous vehicles will drive, ultra-low latency data services can be enabled to support safer self-driving capabilities.

Blending In
In the trend towards small cells, some have been looking at ways to blend them into the everyday fabric of city life.  Vodafone, for example, has been experimenting with bus stops and advertising signs that have built in small cells, where the system is being trialed in the Netherlands.  They partnered with outdoor advertising company JCDecaux as part of their £21 billion Project Spring initiative.

A Lot of Science, With a Dash of Art
Mobile communication has only been around for about 30 years, but in that time, it has completely changed the way we live, work and play. And it’s not done yet.  In fact, things are only accelerating.

Networks are being designed to support ultra-low latency, super-high throughput and massive numbers of connections, creating new ways to do business and drive unprecedented economic and societal growth. But making this happen requires more than technology. As highlighted in this paper, it also requires creativity and constant innovation. It’s a lot of science – with a dash of art.

Small Cell planning is not a simple exercise and many questions need addressing to answer the ultimate question: What is the optimal network design – for maximum performance at the lowest cost and the best return on investment? Where is the demand? Is there a business case? Where is appropriate street furniture: lamp posts, bus stops, etc.? What is the best approach to interference management? Shared carrier vs. dedicated carrier? What is the most appropriate backhaul technology for each candidate location, considering performance, cost, availability of power supply, environment and reliability?

At TEOCO, we can help answer these questions and many others.  Planning, assuring, analyzing and optimizing networks and expansions are challenging and resource intensive tasks. Contact us to learn how we can help.