Simple idea with pitfalls: electricity pylons should close cell phone gaps

Germany still lacks numerous radio stations for the 5G mobile radio standard.

Simple idea with pitfalls: electricity pylons should close cell phone gaps

Germany still lacks numerous radio stations for the 5G mobile radio standard. In rural areas in particular, it makes sense to erect them on power poles - but that also has its pitfalls. Ironically, the power supply for the transmission technology can become a challenge.

Smart farming, autonomous driving, Industry 4.0: great expectations are placed on digitization. But that depends on how the expansion of the 5G mobile communications standard progresses and how the network of radio stations can be linked more closely. Power poles, which are already in large numbers across the country, are also becoming more of a focus. The electricity company Eon, for example, founded a subsidiary in Markkleeberg near Leipzig to promote this business. Other electricity network operators are already providing masts for mobile communications. But that has pitfalls.

So far, such antennas have been attached to power poles, especially below the lines. In order to reach greater heights, they should also be installed in the mast tips in the future, said Carsten Lagemann, one of the managing directors of Eon TowerCo. He names masts along motorways, railway lines, waterways or on the outskirts of towns as important locations. The advantages are obvious. On the one hand, the masts are already there and no building permit is required. Setting up a radio station there takes only about half as long as building a new radio mast. "We can do it in six to twelve months." And the whole thing only costs about half as much.

Other electricity network operators also provide masts for mobile communications. "In the meantime, around 80 of our masts are equipped in this way," said a spokesman for Amprion. At 50Hertz, overhead line masts are already being used in this way, especially in Hamburg. EnBW provides masts for mobile communications, but according to Pascal Kuhn, Head of Strategy, Broadband and Wireless Infrastructure, sees only "quiet music" in this business. Rather, the company is aiming to set up an emergency network with a frequency of 450 megahertz - as a channel for critical infrastructure facilities such as electricity and water management. It should also work for at least three days in the event of a major power failure.

The need for new mobile radio stations is great. According to Telekom alone, more than 1,500 new locations are added every year. "In addition to building a nationwide 5G network, it is also about network densification, closing gaps and fulfilling licenses," explained spokesman Niels Hafenrichter.

The Europe-wide radio mast operator Vantage Towers claims to have an agreement with Vodafone, according to which up to 5,500 new locations in Germany are to be put into operation by the end of 2026. In principle, high-voltage pylons can be used, according to company spokesman Robin Hagenmüller. So far, however, less than 0.5 percent of the company's approximately 19,400 radio masts in Germany are on high-voltage pylons.

One shortcoming is the limited access, for example in the event of disruptions due to the live lines of the masts. In addition, the statics are sometimes not sufficient, and access and the power supply for the transmission technology can be a challenge. Hagenmüller: "We currently rate the potential for further expansion as relatively low due to a number of limitations."

Eon TowerCo Managing Director Stephan Drescher knows about the limited access for mobile network operators to antennas on power poles. But his company bundles all the services of the nine Eon regional companies for the network operators so that they only have one contact person. This also includes power connections and fiber optic connections from stations.

The first pilot projects are currently being implemented in Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, which also involve antennas in the mast tips. The new locations are scheduled to go into operation in early 2023. Further projects are being prepared in Saxony-Anhalt. In the medium term, around 300 cellphone stations are targeted, in the longer term 1000 and more, it said.

According to Vantage Towers, existing power masts can be an alternative to new radio masts, for example in rural areas that have special requirements in terms of landscape and nature conservation. Because there, new masts are often not approved at all or only under difficult conditions and the application process takes a very long time.

However, existing electricity pylons are by no means the only alternative to building new cell phone masts. The antennas can often be found on house roofs or on food. "Especially in cities, mobile phone sites should fit as seamlessly as possible into the cityscape," says Vodafone. In Cologne, for example, there are now two street lamps that not only provide light at night, but also serve as cell phone antennas. And in Düsseldorf, advertising pillars have been upgraded to become 5G stations.

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