PARTNER FEATURE: Antennas may not make news headlines in the same way that the latest glitzy smartphone captures attention, but they are increasingly regarded as a critical element of a successful mobile network.

At Huawei’s 5th annual Global Antenna and AAU Forum in Paris, Professor Dr. Erol Hepsaydir, Head of RAN and Device Strategy and Architecture at operator Three UK, offered an analogy on the importance of the antenna industry: “People like to have good music systems. They have 200 watt outputs, you put it on and everybody starts to feel it. If you connect it to very, very poor speakers, you get nothing. It will be extremely disappointing quality. Antennas are very similar. You may have fantastic equipment, with all the LTE-Advanced features, but if you connect that to a very poor antenna, you just don’t get the benefits from those features”.

As mobile broadband (MBB) networks develop and we move to a ‘Giga World’, mobile networks need to offer consumers innovative new services such as virtual reality, ultra-HD video, autonomous driving, remote healthcare and smart agriculture.

Antenna systems will play a key role in unleashing the potential of tomorrow’s Giga World. In fact, Huawei’s chief marketing officer of wireless networks, Peter Zhou, said at the Paris event that “Huawei strongly believes we need antenna modernisation – that is the future of MBB.”

There were a number of major trends identified at Huawei’s Global Antenna and AAU Forum that will impact this development of antenna systems. Huawei’s Zhou categorised three main challenges facing the antenna industry: “spectrum, sites and operation.”

One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that antennas are able to support the diverse range of spectrum bands available. Huawei believes it is important for antennas to support 9 bands per site, from 700MHz all the way up to 3.5GHz.

spectrumVodafone’s Marco Zangani, Head of Mobile Access in the operator’s European Network Engineering Department, told attendees at the event that an antenna system “must evolve to support effectively the new bands, keeping focus on performance and costs…. Things are becoming more complex so we are asking more from our antennas. If operators obtain a new band and have to go visit all the sites to change the antenna it will be a huge cost. Performance and cost should be the leading drivers for the antenna world.”

And the already diverse range of spectrum bands will expand further in future. “When 5G comes we need to look at 30 and 60GHz,” said Huawei’s Zhou. “The antenna will have to fulfil this mission for MBB.”

Eric Fournier, Director of Spectrum Planning and International Affairs, ANFR, echoed this statement at the Paris event, advising delegates: “If you are designing antennas, take into account 26GHz will be used in Europe for 5G by 2020.”

As well as different spectrum bands, it is also important for antennas to support the convergence of paired and unpaired LTE technology (FDD and TDD versions of LTE) in a single unit. “One LTE is the consensus in industry,” commented Stefan Feuchtinger, VP of Antenna & AAU Business Unit, Huawei.

Multi-band antennas require less installation space, saving site resources. And simplifying site deployment is another key trend facing the antenna industry.

Huawei believes that an active antenna unit (AAU) is the future site evolution trend. In traditional site deployment,there are a large number of boxes, making antenna deployment more complicated. But an AAU reduces the number of devices installed on a tower by integrating the radio and antenna systems. Deployment efficiency is also promoted, as integrated installation of radio and antenna systems reduces deployment difficulties and time required, helping to reduce deployment costs.

Other advantages of AAUs include improved network performance (AAUs can reduce feeder loss, while supporting MIMO and beamforming technologies, which enhance network capacity and coverage), as well as the fact they support future technology offerings such as massive MIMO and 3D beamforming (laying the foundation for 5G development).

Huawei’s AAU products have been deployed in more than 100 commercial networks in over 60 countries since 2012, which shipments exceeding 220,000.  The company’s Li Bin, PDT Leader of Huawei’s Active Antenna division, also claimed that AAUs can overcome the challenge of obtaining traditional sites. He said Huawei’s Easy Macro product can be easily installed on all types of poles, including lamp poles, monitoring poles and wire poles.

“It has been deployed in large scale in many countries, he commented. “Pole site resources are regarded as strategic resources to create differentiated competitive advantage for operators. By acquiring pole site resources in batches, operators have network performance improved, which meets users’ MBB network demands.”

Interestingly, attendees at Huawei’ Paris event revealed that the main driver for operator deployment of AAU is the requirement for extra capacity. In a poll conducted at Huawei’s forum, 42 per cent of respondents cited capacity as their main reason for investing in AAU technology. Almost a third (28 per cent) selected ‘clean site’ as a driver, while ‘easy site acquisition’ was the third most popular response with 11 per cent of the vote.

However, work remains to be done in convincing operators of the benefit of AAU. The poll found that 36 per cent of respondents had no plan to deploy AAU. Only 7 per cent of those surveyed had already deployed the technology, while 34 per cent plan to deploy in 2017-2018.

The main concern around deployment of AAU is “flexibility” (32 per cent of the vote), followed by “weight” (19 per cent) and “maintenance” (14 per cent).

Bouygues Telecom’s Johanna Doat admitted that Bouygues hasn’t yet deployed any active antennas due to concern around flexibility to support new frequency bands. “An active antenna would have to be ready to support this,” she said, before encouragingly adding that “launch of a new product could be the right time to do this.”

Another major issue to consider when siting antennas is ensuring that ElectroMagnetic Field (EMF) levels are closely monitored and adhere to health and safety regulation. “EMF constraints are becoming more common around the world,” stated Vodafone’s Marco Zangani.

Meanwhile T-Mobile’s Rudi Sobotka, Head of Antenna Systems & Property, RAN Planning and Deployment, urged operators to work together on the issue: “We can be sad about the situation, we can complain about the situation, but at the end of the day I think we have a common issue, and we have to collaborate.”

Sobotka suggested a limit of EMF across frequencies, and dynamically managing this across bands and operators. “We have to formulate this, and cooperate finally with the vendors who understand this,” he added.

Whatever approach an operator chooses when siting an antenna unit, Vodafone’s Zangani summarised the importance of the issue. “Site is king” he noted in his concluding remarks at Huawei’s event.

The third and final major trend impacting the antenna industry is the move to decrease operator opex and improve network O&M efficiency. As antenna systems become increasingly complex, making antennas accessible and adjustable and eliminating site visits are key to this goal.

“We see a clear digital transformation for antennas,” said Zhang Jiayi, President of Huawei’s Antenna and AAU Business Unit. “Antennas have to move from a black box existence to become more visible in the network. New features will allow operators a much more intelligent network management in the future.”