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In Canada, there are just over 13,000 cellular sites, either on towers, or rooftops, or other structures, like water towers.  Often, we just call the mounting site a ‘height asset’.  In some cases, there is no physical structure at all, for example in the mountainous regions a cell site can be attached to the edge of a cliff.  So, there are many ways to build a main cellular site.  These main sites are now commonly being called, macro sites.  Why, this name is a hangover from the 4G realm where we just had macro and micro cell sites.  However, with 5G the small cells will change dramatically because with the 5G technology there will be many types of small cell sites clustered around the macro sites, and they are often generically called, micro sites.  However, these small cell sites are actually made up of three different variants called, femtocell, picocell, and microcells.  So, calling all small cell sites microcells is a misnomer as this is just one of the three variations of the small cell sites collaborating with the macro site.

While the small cell sites will morph into three variants, there are many changes to these main macro cell sites as well with the advent of 5G.  The changes include:

  • Capabilities to bridge the old with the new – continued support for the existing 4G signals while adding the new capabilities of 5G to the site
  • Maximize automation in cell site operations and use AI to help deal with increase network complexity
  • 5G enables super-fast response times better 5G coverage and an immersive media experience. It secures a service-based architecture, and supports network slicing and the swift creation of new services
  • Carrier Aggregation boosts network capacity by 27 percent or brings coverage to 25 percent more people using the mid-band for the downlink
  • The latest radio solutions bring optimized 5G performance – by providing wider coverage for longer inter-site distances – and easy site build with the lowest total cost of ownership
  • New antennas will be added
  • New transmitters will be added
  • New higher order 1024 QAM modulation will be applied to the signals
  • Different forms of forward error correction will be applied too
  • Additional point to point radio systems will be added to feed the small cells

Urban areas, like the cities companies are currently using as test sites for the technology, will likely benefit from 5G before more rural areas.  Some communities with very low populations may not see 5G service for some time due to the high cost of setting up several smaller 5G “towers” to serve a low population area.  Because of this, existing cell towers and other communication infrastructure will remain essential for keeping people connected to the rest of the world.

Eventually, it is possible that cell phone towers will become obsolete.  After all, some companies are already developing direct device-to-device mobile connections, which could eliminate the need for bulky cell phone towers altogether.  Whatever the future holds, the transition will occur slowly.  However, due to the vast rural nature of Canada, it is logical to expect to see large macro cell towers for many years to come.

Will the same tower locations used for 4G work for 5G?  In most cases, yes, they will for the macro cell sites.  However, there will be a need for new sites to append the coverage and optimize the costs.  So, site acquisition is increase as new locations are added and older sites retired.

The increase in structural loading on towers will demand the physical improvements of existing towers and perhaps the outright replacement of an older tower that cannot be strengthened to support the new structural loads that 5G infrastructure will impose.  So, there will be a lot of capital spent on tower enhancements for 5G implementations.  Do not forget that we will need to continue to ‘dual illuminate’ for 4G and 5G for many years so hosting both networks on existing towers will create serious structural impacts.

Access to qualified crews able to build these 5G networks on the towers and make the physical enhancements to the existing towers and build the new towers is a major challenge.  These crews need to be more then just riggers.  We will need riggers but also technicians, technologists, and engineers to be in the field for the next decade to make these 5G changes.  Climbing towers is not a younger person’s game. it demands stronger, youthful, and risk adverse climbers.  A 40-year-old rigger is a serious liability and at the end of their climbing years.

Time is the issue.  It will take a long time to deploy the 5G infrastructure in Canada.  Access to equipment, crews, sites, good weather, and many other logistical factors will affect the speed of the 5G deployments.  When you mix in the challenges of the added optical fibre connection deployments to feed these macro cell sites, the time line expands exponentially longer.

As all of these new sites are added or enhanced, the risk for radio interference is greatly increased too.  While new bands are offered, which will move traffic away, the interference within each band can be problematic.  Luckily, 5G offers 8×8 MIMO and beamforming to help reduce the risk for interference at these macro tower sites.  The risk for interference at the small cell sites can be greater and the potential from macro and small cell sites to adversely affect each other is great.  So, engineering and RF propagation modelling will be essential in advance of any deployments.  To compound matters, there is additional risk for interference with the legacy 4G frequencies and the point to point backhaul networks as well as other non-cellular networks in adjacent bands.  The neighbourhood is about to get very crowded from a RF spectrum perspective.

Imagine the network efficiencies that could be gained if radio frequency bands and traffic were managed automatically through artificial intelligence…  5G coverage could be secured and the user experience would never suffer.  We now enable a unique means of optimizing the radio access networks: by adding AI to the baseband.  New AI functionalities are optimized for the RAN Compute architecture and have the advantage to run close to the radios, bringing down feedback loops to less than 10 milliseconds.

The AI algorithms analyze vast amounts of traffic data and network load in real time, without impacting the capacity of the network.  This enables instant traffic predictions in the network, without the need for extra hardware, and without site visits.  So, whether it’s secure extended 5G coverage you’re after or improved LTE performance, it is all coming to these new macro cell sites in the next decade.

More than Just Towers

5G mobile networks will significantly affect both the wireless side (obviously!) and the wireline side of the global network infrastructure, as airborne bits jump to and from terrestrial wireline networks.  I summarized the main aspirational performance goals of 5G, which are listed below.  These formidable network performance goals are heavily predicated on the availability of fiber, and lots of it, to the cell sites.

  • Up to 1000 times increased in bandwidth, per unit area
  • Up to 100 times more connected devices
  • Up to 10Gbps connection rates to mobile devices in the field
  • A perceived network availability of 99.999%
  • A perceived 100% network coverage
  • Maximum of 1ms end-to-end round-trip delay (latency)
  • Up to 90% reduction in network energy utilization

Traditionally, 2G and 3G mobile networks often used copper-based Time Division multiplexing (TDM) circuits, such as multiple bonded T1s or E1s, to connect cell sites to a nearby Mobile Switching Center over the Mobile Backhaul (MBH) network.  Although this now legacy MBH architecture has indeed served the industry well for decades, it’s quickly showing its age with advent of 4G.  MBH upgrades are taking place all over the world converting legacy copper-based MBH serving cell sites to packet-based transport over fiber, which enables far higher capacities to best future-proof MBH networks.  The increased adoption of 4G LTE and LTE-Advanced mobile network technology is accelerating these MBH fiber upgrades, which can and will be leveraged by future 5G networks, given the almost unlimited bandwidth that fiber-based networks offer.

To improve the coverage, capacity, and overall Quality of Experience (QoE) of mobile users, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are adopting small cells, which strategically place radios closer to users.  Small cells can be backhauled over copper (xDSL, HFC-based cable modems…), air (microwave, millimeterwave…), or fiber (Ethernet, PON…).  All three media options are being used today, to varying degrees, with the technology choice based on economic, environmental, regulatory, and time-to-market criteria, which are often specific to the target geographic location and application.  Fiber-based small cell MBH is always the preferred option, whenever and wherever possible, because the technology is scalable, secure, understood, and in many cases, the most cost-effective. However, there are indeed cases where deploying fiber simply isn’t a viable option.

The maximum theoretical download speed for LTE-Advanced (Release 8) is 300Mbps, although typical real-world download speeds are far lower at about 40Mbps, if you’re fortunate enough to even have this type of service coverage in your neck of the woods.  As an increasing number of mobile users access more video-centric content for longer periods of time using increasing powerful smartphones, Radio Access Network (RAN) bandwidth demands will continue to grow, unabated.

Despite 5G still being embryonic in its development, there is already a quest for evidence to support decision-making in government and industry.  Although there is still considerable technological, economic, and behavioural uncertainty, exploration of how the potential rollout may take place both spatially and temporally is required for effective policy formulation.  Consequently, the cost, coverage, and rollout implications of 5G networks across Canada are explored by extrapolating 4G LTE and LTE-Advanced characteristics for the period 2020–2030.  We focus on ubiquitous ultra-fast broadband of 50 Mbps and test the impact of annual capital intensity, infrastructure sharing, and reducing the end-user speed in rural areas to either 10 or 30 Mbps.  For the business-as-usual scenario we find that 90% of the population is covered with 5G by 2027, but coverage is unlikely to reach the final 10% due to exponentially increasing costs.  Moreover, varying annual capital intensity or deploying a shared small cell network can greatly influence the time taken to reach the 90% threshold, with these changes mostly benefiting rural areas.  Importantly, simply by integrating new and existing spectrum, a network capable of achieving 10 Mbps per rural user is possible, which is comparable to the governments aspiration to provide equal access to the internet regardless of where you reside.  5G wireless is the means to achieve this quest.


Ericsson. (2019). A complete 5G platform for smooth network evolution. Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson. Retrieved on October 25, 2019 from,

Lavellee, B. (2019). 5G wireless needs fiber, and lots of it. Ciena Corporation. Retrieved on October 25, 2019 from,

Oughton, E., & Frias. (2018). The cost, coverage and rollout implications of 5G infrastructure in Britain. Science Direct. Retrieved on October 25, 2019 from,

The Whiz Cells. (2019). Will Cell Towers Become Obsolete With 5G? The Whiz Cells. Retrieved on October 25, 2019 from,

About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies.

He is a business and technology consultant. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).

Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). 

He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. 

He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 15 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.