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How 5G antennas will get built near you

CNET Now What looks at the hurdles in the way of getting 5G networks fully in place.


5G is here, but it won't really flourish on next-generation phones and 5G connected cars until the network is built out. That physical network will be more vast and dense than that which powers current networks. It'll also cost as much as $750 billion worldwide over the next five years. Yet it comes at a time of unparalleled economic challenges that put every major project under harsh scrutiny. Now what? 

Now playing: Watch this: 5G small cell sites are very different from 4G towers

"This is the biggest infrastructure project after the interstate highway system," says Sean Shahini, CEO of Inorsa, an engineering startup that focuses on lean, fast 5G network site builds. Those sites aren't just retrofits of existing 4G towers: Some will proceed easily, but "the range of (most of) our antennas is way less than with 4G, so instead of building 100 antennas, for example, to cover Manhattan, we have to build 5,000 to 20,000 antennas," says Shahini.

The reason 5G needs so many cellular antennas, or "small cells", is because it often uses higher frequency radio waves that have vast data capacity, but short range. Those high-frequency waves are also less likely to bend around buildings and obstacles than 4G signals, adding to the number of small cells needed to cover dense cities.

5G small cell site engineering

5G small cells may be small, by cellular standards, but there will be up to 200 times more of them than 4G towers.


The other hurdle is what's behind those thousands of antennas. "The biggest piece is power and fiber, and it's not like one solution fits all," Shahini says, describing the challenge of pulling electrical wiring and high-speed fiber to thousands of cells. 5G technology also tends to use a mini data center at cell sites, capitalizing on 5G's low latency rather than sending all packets to remote servers.

Sean Shahini, CEO, Inorsa

Sean Shahini founded Inorsa to focus on speed and cost of 5G site design and construction. With thousands of 5G small cells needed in each average city, that matters.


Once the cell is technically planned, it must also pass visual muster in the community. "A typical 5G antenna would be 2.5 feet tall and about 1.5 feet wide," says Shahini. "After a while people get used to what they look like or they are just very hard to see." That may be wishful thinking if a city is receiving 20,000 antennas the size of a movie poster at a time when opposition to 5G's presence has inspired some vigorous opposition.

Inorsa CEO Sean Shahini shared many more insights into the 5G build-out of. Hear his entire conversation with CNET's Brian Cooley in the video above.

Now What is a video interview series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers that covers trends impacting businesses and consumers amid the "new normal." There will always be change in our world, and we'll be here to discuss how to navigate it all.