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  • Faster internet? Here's the technology that will make 5G networks possible

    By Kelly Hall, 3M Storyteller

    Worker harnessed to cell tower

    • What will it take to get us to the future?

      Many smartphone operators are considering this question as we prepare to transition into a 5G world – a world anticipated to bring us faster and more efficient mobile connectivity.

      Before we can experience this cloud of constant connectivity, there are some technical challenges to overcome.

      Think about your phones. They have a protocol, or language, that they use to communicate. With 5G, some of these protocols will need to be changed. Studies show that 5G networks will make up 40 percent of wireless network infrastructure spending by the end of 2025.

      “We will see densification of cellular infrastructure to support 5G,” says David Wortman, who leads 5G efforts at 3M. “We are predicting that the number of antennas and radios will double as we move into multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) configurations – which will support multiple users accessing the wireless network at the same time.” This will also mirror the data rates being used.

      While current base station antennas and radios are large, 5G will present the challenge of providing designs that are smaller and lighter, while also being able to manage thermal load and remain visually concealed.

    • Telecommunication line connection on tower with sunrise sky during morning
      Telecommunication line connection on tower

      Antennas, radios and fibers

      Not sure how antennas work? Data is transmitted through radio waves, which are split into bands of various frequencies that enable communication – like television broadcasts, mobile data, aeronautical and maritime navigational signals. The radio waves travel through air and arrive at a receiver antenna.

      “You can think about an antenna as a coiled-up wire,” explains Jennifer Sokol, product development specialist at 3M. “When you have current moving through a wire, it creates electromagnetic emissions. Those signals are what you get in and out of the antenna. That is what it receives, and that is what it puts out.”

      Right now, when you tear down an antenna, you will find a lot of heavy equipment, because some of today’s cellular antennas are quite large.

      This will not work for 5G. As we transition into higher frequencies, some of these larger antennas may need to be supplemented with an array field of smaller antennas.

      A stronger connection with smaller antennas? Yes, it’s possible.

      “When you use a higher frequency, you have a smaller antenna and tend to have less power transmission,” Jennifer explains. “But when you combine multiples of these smaller antennas, they can work as a team in order to build up the signal.” The result? An improvement in the capacity of the communication system.

      Other physical changes to the network are on the horizon, too, like enhancements in optical fibers.

      “There is going to be a lot of optical fiber that is put in the ground and on aerial stands to allow communication links to happen,” says Paul Leblanc, a technical expert in communications technologies at 3M.

      Base stations, which connect to antennas and receive and transmit cellular network signals to your phone, will also be on the rise. It is expected that they will be spaced out in order to provide us with more coverage over broad areas. They will also be linked to optical fibers that connect base stations to your cloud or internet.

    • Inside a data center

      Data centers moving to the edge

      Data centers will join in the movement to evolve as 5G approaches.

      We will see the proliferation of a new type of data center: edge data centers – designed to move the “edge” of the internet closer to where internet users are located.

      “The edge data centers and 5G will work together to help the 5G network achieve its goal of low latency, or less time for a packet of data to travel from one destination to another,” explains Paul.

      In order for this to happen, data centers will need to be located at the edge of the network to be closer to radio transmitters.

      “The data center needs to be located closer to the user so that if information comes from a sensor, it can go back to an edge data center location, be analyzed and then be sent back out to quickly perform its necessary action,” says Paul.

      Cell sites and cells – like the towers that you see when you drive around town – may house some equipment racks where edge data center resources are stored.

    • “We are seeking to bridge the present to the future.” – Tommie Kelley, Advanced Research Specialist, 3M

      Evolving science to adapt to a changing future

      3M scientists are pushing forward with the technologies needed to support the changing size and scale of 5G infrastructure. They are working with leading communications companies and equipment manufacturers to help meet the foreseen needs of 5G network equipment. For instance, 3M’s current solutions for data centers can have applications in future data centers. “Some of the requirements are different, but, because we really understand materials, we can make changes to our products that should work with those new solutions,” says Jennifer.

      Tommie Kelley, who researches these technologies at 3M, says that 5G will leverage the same kinds of materials that are used in 3G and 4G infrastructure, but with properties compatible with millimeter waves. “We are likely to continue to need lightweight composite materials for building devices,” she says. “Thermal management in electronic devices may continue to be a challenge, and managing electromagnetic interference continues to become more complex as more frequencies interact to provide our communication infrastructure.”

      Many of these materials may need to evolve to be compatible with millimeter waves.

      3M scientists are finding ways to meet these challenges. They designed structural bonding materials to help create lighter weight and more durable antenna equipment.

      “Antennas and radios have significantly increased port density – up to 16 port antennas now, compared to previous generations,” explains Jeffrey Tostenrude, who works in the lab as an application engineering specialist at 3M. “Integrated radio/active antennas, massive MIMO antennas, multi-band RF/mmWave radios and other newer technologies will still require thermal solutions.”

      And the scientists want you to continue being seamlessly connected to the internet of things. They are working to create solutions to prevent passive intermodulation (PIM). Sources say that PIM is caused by two or more signals mixing or multiplying. This can happen if non-linear passive components, which do not have a linear relationship between current and voltage, lead to intermodulation distortion.

    • Cell phone towers

      “PIM is a growing issue for cellular network operators, because it can create noise in radio signals, making it difficult to transmit data reliably,” says David. 3M scientists are creating electromagnetic materials to help reduce the effects of PIM.

      Scientists at 3M also know that not all technology is meant to be seen. Their reflective conceal film does not interfere with radio frequency signal transmission. It can be used to wrap antennas to help conceal them. With this technology, you can see an improvement in the visual impact of those devices.

      It is a solution that may come in handy as more technology is needed to support 5G.

      “For 5G, we’ll see a lot more cells placed in the environment,” says Paul. “One of the challenges of this is the push back from communities over what they look like. The 3M™ Conceal Film is a tool that can be used to help conceal those pieces of equipment.”

      It’s just as important to protect these pieces of equipment since signal intensity and radio frequency performance are key to achieving high data rates. To ensure this, scientists utilize 3M weatherproofing solutions to help protect some of the cable connections between radio and antennas from the weather. It also helps safeguard equipment to be able to last longer in the outdoor environment and maintain signal integrity.

      “Anything that disturbs the signal to noise ratio is a detriment to achieving high data rates,” explains Paul. “Weatherproofing of radio frequency connections is one way to provide good signal integrity.”

      From radios to antennas, the scientists at 3M are eager to continue facing the challenges that 5G presents. “We have our feet and heads grounded in the reality of today while also thinking, planning and building for a bolder future,” says Tommie. “We are seeking to bridge the present to the future.”

    Learn more

    Explore what 5G is, how it will impact lives and how 3M scientists are finding solutions to enable the future of communication.