By Michael J. Marcus, Sc.D., F-IEEE
Director, Marcus Spectrum Solutions LLC
In January 2011, RF Globalnet published an article by Alfred T. Yerger II of Bird Technologies Group entitled, "Antenna Location Is Not An Architectural Decision: Antenna system design and placement is critical to proper system performance." The article emphasized the technical issues in successful antenna design with respect to location and spacing of antennas.
The point of this essay is to emphasize that good engineering is more than about making systems that work in a nominal sense, it is about making systems work in the real world with real constraints such as cost, size, weight, battery life, and compatibility with their environment in the case of systems that are intrusive into their locations as many cellular base stations are. It is this engineering to meet practical constraints which is a key difference between engineers and physicists.
The cellular base station controversy here is generally limited to suburban areas. In rural areas, base stations are often on remote towers with few neighbors and usually are not controversial. In dense urban areas, antennas can usually be integrated into pre-existing buildings, and this can generally be done with little visual impact. But in suburbia, base stations must be near the using populations and must have heights higher than nearby buildings – necessitating free-standing structures in most cases. It is these suburban base stations that repeatedly run into problems with neighbors and delays in zoning and permitting.
Industry's approach to such problems has been primarily legal – attempts to pre-empt local jurisdictions in antenna approval and more recently "shot clock" limits on approval time. If these approaches were successful, the problem would no longer exist. But as the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local," and there are pragmatic political limits to what the federal government can do on matters that affect neighborhoods.
The cellular industry has built some visually attractive base stations in suburban areas, but this has generally been done as a last resort to solve an intractable zoning problem, and the resulting custom designs have been very expensive, further decreasing industry interest in alternative design approaches.
Criticism of suburban antenna designs is not limited to neighbors. At an FCC hearing in 2009, Jake MacLeod, a vice president of Bechtel, a major builder of wireless infrastructure for carriers, observed that we have reached the "end of the line" for current design concepts. More recently, Dr. Wim Sweldens, President, Alcatel-Lucent Wireless Division, said:
But we also have to be honest that in the mobile industry we are creating some problems. The mobile industry is actually contributing a fair amount to pollution...The mobile industry is also obstructing and cluttering our landscapes and cityscapes with more and more and bigger and bigger and uglier and uglier antennas and towers.
And why is that? We as the equipment vendors are part of the problem. We create big hungry base stations that need to become bigger and hungrier as we add more technologies. We put big towers with antennas and more and more of them every day. And that model and those types of technologies cannot continue as our industry grows....
We have discovered the capability of taking these power hungry base stations and take these big and ugly antennas and pretty much make them invisible.
Dr. Sweldens said this as part of the introduction of Alcatel-Lucent's lightradio™ antenna product, but his point is independent of that particular solution. MacLeod and Sweldens, both mainstream industry members, agree that the types of antenna systems used for most cellular base stations are basically incompatible with many of their locations.
I am troubled by the preference of the cellular industry to hire lawyers, lobbyists, and PR firms to handle their antenna-siting problems rather than going back to step zero and rethinking, as Alcatel-Lucent has done, the basics of what is needed. Twice in the past three years I have worked with different universities to try to put together projects with engineering and architecture students and professors to explore new design concepts. These projects need some funding to work and neither university was able to get any appreciable funding from industry.
Mr. Yerger ends his article with, "Remember, antenna location is not an architectural decision!" Perhaps not, but in the real world, antennas and other engineered systems have to work in the environment in which they are placed. Being compatible with the local environment and acceptable to neighbors is part of that. The cellular operators and suppliers should start making some real efforts to examine base station design for suburbia from a fresh piece of paper and stop focusing on using products in today's catalogs unless forced to do a very expensive custom design. Alcatel-Lucent deserves praise for "thinking outside the box" with their new concept, whether or not it ever has a significant role. The rest of industry should rethink its current approaches, also.