Demand for mobile bandwidth continues to grow, but no one wants to actually see the additional cellular towers needed to augment 4G and 5G service. Working with Ericsson, Vodafone UK is rolling out a surprisingly viable way to hide networking equipment in cities: 4G and 5G hardware that attaches under manhole covers, radiating wireless signals upwards from ground level.

Historically, wireless providers have preferred to mount cellular hardware well above ground level, as rooftop- or streetlight-level radio signals can travel further with less physical interference. But localities across the world have balked at letting “small cells” — the backpack-sized building blocks of 5G networks — flood public spaces, particularly at their standard 500-foot separation.

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Ericsson has developed two ground level alternatives, the Financial Times reports, one attaching 4G/5G antennas underneath cast iron manhole covers, the other placing cellular hardware inside a barrel-shaped enclosure with a ruggedised top. Even at ground level, the enclosures can distribute the wireless signal across an over 650-foot radius, subject of course to the vagaries of vehicular interference.

Within the U.K., this solution will give Vodafone the ability to quickly add 4G and 5G cellular capacity in major cities, as unlike small cell towers, manhole-based solutions apparently do not require permission from city planners. Vodafone already controls hundreds of thousands of manholes, the report says, and hopes to contract with utility companies to open at least as many additional sites to cellular hardware.

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Outside the U.K., other localities will likely benefit from the same innovation, both for consumer and government use. Beyond empowering faster smartphones, 5G is expected to play a key role in enabling autonomous vehicles, connected city infrastructures, and remote industrial applications, all of which might be better serviced by networks of manhole-based wireless signalling than by conventional towers.

Ericsson announced that it was working on an underground cellular solution for Swisscom back in 2016, and has been actively developing 5G small cell mounting alternatives to appease local and national concerns. The company’s “Zero Site” solution hides 5G hardware inside street lamps, enabling a neighbourhood to improve both cellular reception and night time visibility without the need for conspicuous small cell hardware.

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