Along the roadsides of posh North Scottsdale, Arizona are some tall Saguaro cacti, but look a little closer and you'll notice something strange. Many of the cacti are exactly 24-feet-tall, and they all look alike.
The Scottsdale cacti are actually 4G LTE and 5G fixed wireless antennas, and they're not alone. In the Eastern U.S. and the Denver, Colorado area, some of the beautiful pine trees are actually antennas, while in the South, antennas are masquerading as palm trees.
And, it's not just trees that you need to be suspicious of. In Texas, antennas are hiding out in city recycling bins, while in the Midwest, some of the ubiquitous water towers aren't what they seem. Across the country, light poles, traffic lights, signs, chimneys, rooftops, lanterns, church steeples, and clock towers are hiding radio equipment.
The need to hide 5G antennas
5G, or fifth-generation wireless, promises speeds above 1 Gbit/s, which is vastly faster than 4G LTE, along with near-zero latency, or lag time. In September 2018, the Federal Communications Commission released its 5G Fast Plan, which calls for cities, cell and cable providers, and electric utilities to work together so that 5G can be rolled out as quickly as possible across the U.S.
5G operates at higher wave frequencies and shorter millimeter wavelengths than 4G. This causes 5G waves to be more easily blocked by objects, such as houses or trees. Even leaves can block a 5G signal. To counter this, 5G uses "small cell" antennas, which are around the size of a pizza box, and it needs lots of them.
5G antennas must be set up every couple of hundred feet apart, which is around the length of a city block. In order to allow for self-driving vehicles, the 5G antennas must be located close to street level.
Small cell antennas have a range of around 656 feet (200 meters), and they connect to the Internet via fiber optic cables. The types of small cell antennas that are deployed vary, depending on the spectrum bands that a cell operator is using, and the vendors who are supplying the transmission equipment.
"Not in my backyard"
While the public wants the increased speed and bandwidth that 5G promises, increasingly across the U.S., the installation of small cell antennas has been met with cries of "not in my backyard." Cities such as Baltimore, Maryland and Arvada, Colorado have passed legislation requiring that cell carriers camouflage, obscure, or disguise their small cell antennas.
Colorado's regulations state, "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."
Companies such as ConcealFab and Valmont Industries are creating concealment solutions for both 4G LTE and 5G antennas. This cost of concealment must be figured in when computing the cost to roll out 5G networks. Cities often settle on two or three basic types of concealment configurations for small cell antennas, then they re-use those designs at each site.
In Europe, three entities have joined together not to hide small cell antennas, but to celebrate them. Cell provider Deutsche Telekom, materials company Covestro, and the Swedish Umeå Institute of Design (UID) have created such unusual antenna covers as "The Bird".
What the future holds
Whether we like it or not, in the future, powerful wireless networks will provide the coverage and capacity necessary for the growing number of wireless devices. These will include the Internet of Things (IoT) and the devices needed for smart cities. Wireless companies will increasingly seek to conceal their small cell antennas.
In 2018, Ericsson, one of the world's largest suppliers of wireless networking equipment, bought 29 percent of ConcealFab, a Colorado-based startup that specializes in "concealment solutions for 4G and 5G deployments."
5G is definitely coming, the handwriting is on the wall, only it might look like a cactus.