Smart phones have enabled an explosion in wireless data usage, with today’s users hungry for every bit of wireless bandwidth the mobile operators are able to deliver. At major events - concerts, sporting competitions, religious gatherings – whether temporary or permanent venues, this can sometimes mean tens or hundreds of thousands of people all using their mobile devices at the same time to upload and download images, video and more.
For mobile operators, being able to provide sufficient network capacity to support such heavy usage means deploying innovative infrastructure solutions, of which the multi-beam antenna is a game changer.
A perfect storm of demand
In an age where mobile devices of every conceivable type are available to the bandwidth and social-media-hungry users of today, network operators face the challenge of providing a high quality of service demanded by high-tariff-paying subscribers.
According to leading analyst house, IDC, there were 344.7 million shipments of smart phones alone, globally, in Q2 of 2016; it is estimated that there will be over two billion smart-phone users worldwide by year-end.
This fact alone places enormous demands on mobile networks for high-speed data bandwidth. Add to the smart-phone boom the advent of social media and the result is a perfect storm of constant mobile bandwidth demand.
However, one way for the MNOs to meet this challenge is by ensuring they deploy the right hardware in their networks and at their cell sites, with antennas that can deliver the coverage and capacity required absolutely crucial in that regard.
A challenge magnified
The challenge outlined above is magnified when it comes to major events such as concerts, sports venues and other large public gatherings. Here, often tens or hundreds of thousands of people come together, either regularly or for only short periods and use their smart phones to stream and upload/share video, as well as make good old voice calls.
This high density of simultaneous user activity/usage presents an even bigger challenge for the MNOs. Whether in 2G, 3G or 4G / UMTS / LTE environments, these operators need to ensure best quality of service by installing the most capable, innovative infrastructure technologies - particularly the right antennas - to support such bandwidth and traffic demands.
Traditional single and twin-beam planar base station antennas simply cannot deliver the capacity and coverage required in these big-crowd scenarios. Enter the multi-beam antenna.
A challenge solved
Multi-beam antennas based on patented phased-array technologies have emerged in recent years and are playing an increasing role in delivering huge increases in network capacity for permanent, as well as temporary, cellular hotspot deployments during major events around the world.
For example, fully ultra-wide-band multi-beam antennas for special coverage and capacity occasions - in this case the Six-Beam Special Events Antenna from CCI - were used earlier this year to support mobile operator, Oi Móvel, in Brazil delivering services for visitors to the Rio Olympics. The six-beam solution deployed suited the traditional BTS x 3 factor of radios enabling it to provide 1800/2100/2600 LTE-ready coverage.
Increased sectorisation has always been a technique for increasing capacity and can be achieved in a single antenna in very efficient ways. A six-beam solution - each beam effectively its own sector - with minimal amounts of overlap between each of the six narrow beams helps keep interference to a minimum and, when combined with very low side lobes, offers the best performance for the MNOs delivering 3G, 4G/LTE and UMTS services to large concentrations of mobile users.
Six-sector multi-beam diagram showing much less crossover of beams leading to less interference.
The next challenge
For manufacturers, putting six antennas into a single structure naturally results in a product wider than a traditional macro antenna, but they do provide much better beam control and have also been able to introduce the added elements of full 1695-2700MHz support.
These are the first multi-beam antennas to serve all the high-band technologies. The impact of this is significant as it enables the support of multi-carrier aggregation, particularly with LTE, which means that more than double the throughput of LTE systems can be supported; this means capacity is significantly increased and user performance and quality of service are significantly improved.
With a major challenge in Europe being the support of carrier aggregation across all the regularly used LTE bands, that this can now be met by multi-band, multi-beam antennas as well as focused-beam, in-building wide-band antennas is a breakthrough. And solutions which can support 2600 /1800/ 800 LTE bands offer the ideal combination for permanent and temporary stadium-type, hotspot deployments across Europe.
Here to stay
Mobile operators around the world are fast becoming aware of the network improvements and increases multi-beam systems can introduce into their networks. Deployments of 6-beam antennas at the Rio Olympics and in St Peter’s Square for the recent, year-long ‘Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy’, have been extremely successful this year and have proven that multi-beam antennas now have a permanent place in the macro network planning of the future.
And while these systems started out as solutions to fill temporary hotspots at one-off and occasional event locations, they are increasingly being adopted by MNOs for installations that are permanent, as shown in St Peter’s Square in Rome (see photo below). Deployed by Italian MNO, TIM, that installation supports the data demands of over fifty thousand people on an almost daily basis.
In the UK, one of the country’s leading MNOs has also deployed 6-beam, special events antennas for gatherings such as the Glastonbury Music Festival, where they met all capacity demands placed on them from the thousands streaming and sharing video and music.
The future bandwidth battle
The demand for mobile bandwidth is set to grow without respite for the operators. Multi-beam developments are thankfully moving fast and keeping up with, if not a little bit ahead of that growth in demand.
Manufacturers are currently designing 9-beam and even 15-beam systems that will offer mobile operators major new multi-band ‘weapons’ to use in their network planning arsenals.
One leading industry source said: “Operators now understand there is a permanent need for high-speed, high-density ultra-fast cellular, almost Wi-Fi-quality service of hundreds of Mb/s. In theory, with multi-carrier aggregation you can achieve almost 400-500Mb/s from each beam.
“Therefore, with six beams, you have greater than a Gb of data capacity within a single cell. This transition into a ‘Gb world’ means that operators now see these latest multi-beam antennas as key elements to be considered, not only for hotspot solutions, but also as part of the initial network plan for any macro network roll-out.”