I often speak to customers who find it difficult to decide which antenna to use, especially if there are some more expensive and seemingly cheap antennas on the market. Understandably, this can be quite confusing for the normal person that wants to make the best of their technical Radio Frequency (RF) requirement.
As with all electronic goods, looking only at the product specifications can be confusing to the layman but even more concerning is when the specifications are misleading to even those who consider themselves RF specialists. This, together with a natural tendency to choose an antenna with ‘similar specifications’ which appear more cost optimal, easily leads the inobservant to make a terrible decision.
Coming from a career of cellular network design and engineering; I was often pressured to use less costly antennas in our network plans so that our radio network deployments can remain competitive, yet we found that the antennas where creating havoc in those networks that chose to deploy the less reputable antenna products. It was difficult to oppose these pressures for cost savings, but it was worth it in the long run. Saving a few bucks now easily results in lower performance, higher maintenance costs and much higher cost over the longer term.
This article is not about base station antennas, but rather the selection of antennas for personal, corporate, or industrial use of Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) antennas. Although this article details “Top 5 tips for investing in a good customer premises LTE/5G antenna – for the long game” many of the concepts can also be applied to other electronic and technical products.
Tip # 1: Brand reputation, brand reputation, brand reputation
We see many brands of customer premises, corporate and industrial antennas on the market, some are good purchases but unfortunately some are very poor purchases. Less reputable antenna manufacturers may release antennas onto the market at prices comparable to our own or even a bit cheaper. Their high-level technical specifications often appear similar and sometimes even better than our antennas, but testing the antennas reveals that the customer should have paid much, much, much less than what they actually did. Many companies artificially enhance the perceived value of their products by positioning the product at a much higher price than it is worth when looking at the technical performance and other aspects.
We do not deny that there are some excellent antennas out there, but in most cases, we are disappointed with the actual product performance after they have lured customers to purchase the antenna due to the selective, opaque or misleading technical and marketing information. This makes it difficult for the customer to separate the wheat from the chaff – I.e., customers are duped with the slightly cheaper price and similar or better appearing technical specifications.
Tip # 2: Get the right antenna for your needs.
Is it worth paying more for a better antenna or will a cheap one suffice…? This is the big question…
Relating this question to normal home Wi-Fi routers; it is usually not worth paying a lot more for specialised antennas when you only want to cover a few square meters of office or residential space. Here I often just use what I get out of the box and find that acceptable. To place this into perspective:
- For a family minivan, I would not fit high performance supercar tyres, but similarly…
- For a supercar, it would not make sense to fit minivan tyres.
Just imagine the supercar with the minivan tyres; this is a total waste of the vehicle’s performance and application. Nobody with such a car would even consider it.
So, it is a matter of ‘courses for horses’ where the selection of product needs to be suited to the requirement, expectations, application and environmental requirements. In this case, an antenna is not just an antenna, but needs to be selected according to its application and other aspects, such as environmental, mechanical, etc.
Similar to my home Wi-Fi router antenna example and my supercar example above, we often encounter end users and even major system integrators deploying a high quality and high price LTE router, Wi-Fi system or other radio system and use it with ‘out of the box’ or with ‘cheap’ substandard antennas. When investing in a high-performance router or other types of radio system, it only makes sense to equally consider the choice of antenna. The antenna system easily becomes the neglected item that makes or breaks the whole system, thereby degrading the performance gains of the more expensive radio equipment.
The strength of a chain lies in the weakest link, and this is so true for the implementation of high quality and high-performance communication systems.
Tip # 3: Do evaluate the technical specifications.
It is important for the end user to evaluate the technical specifications in detail (if they are specified and represented accurately on the technical sheets).
Does the manufacturer provide a comprehensive set of technical specifications, detailing the various aspects in full (also showing the ugly bits), or do you get a feeling that the product technical sheet is too perfect or withholding information and providing an opaque view of the product technicalities?
Other important aspects to look out for in the specifications:
- Are the radiation patterns shown in detail? Are they consistent over the different frequency bands?
- Do the radiation patterns show a perfect pattern (i.e., computer generated) or can you also see the imperfections (i.e., is the antenna measured for real)?
- Are the radiation patterns ‘behaving’ over all the frequency bands or are they ‘shooting’; all over the place?
- Are you given a generalised peak gain figure for the antenna, or do they also show the poorer performance on a detailed graph?
- Are the mechanical details and specifications shown in full?
If the ugly bits are not shown, then the reality is often much worse than you expect 😊.
(For more details on radiation patterns have a look at our webinar titled “Getting to the Poynt: A guide through the antenna specification minefield where this is discussed in more detail.)
Tip #4: Ensure your antenna is futureproof & not made for the dump.
We continuously hear of ‘made for the dump’ engineering principles that are applied to limit the lifespan of various electronic products. This allows the more mainstream companies to continuously sell the same or newer product to their customers more regularly, effectively creating their own market. This also applies to technology evolution, especially where products are designed to be replaced with the release of new technology.
Companies that create products for longevity, despite the threat of losing future sales, is not generally heard of these days. A strategy of long lasting and futureproof products benefits not only the consumer, but also the environment and works out much cheaper for the consumer in the long run. The cost of replacement and renewal is often overlooked and becomes more costly when the antenna does not last as it should.
Poynting has an excellent track record of antennas made with longevity in mind, with examples of antennas that are close to 20 years old and still seen in use today. The first one that comes to mind is our range of helical (HELI) antennas for underground communications that are still being used today. Although the range has been expanded with a wider range of models and improved on extensively, the original HELI antennas are still in use and still being manufactured. The second one is our LPDA-92 that has been in use (as LPDA-A0021) since 2004/2005 – we still find these antennas on the top of buildings or sold on 2nd hand sites. This same antenna which was designed in the days of 2G / GSM is being effectively used today still on LTE and 5G networks. Who would have thought that buying this antenna 16 years ago would have been futureproof and still very useable today!
In the picture above you can see the first version compared to the latest version – essentially the same good quality, mechanically solid, high performing antenna still sold today.
Tip #5: Ensure that the antenna also works in adverse RF & environmental conditions.
Even the worst antennas work okay in the best of conditions but fail to provide consistency and reliability.
Antennas generally do perform well under ideal conditions, even antennas with compromised performance. This is most evident when you are in good coverage and good network capacity (e.g., in the case of LTE / 5G networks).
Radiation pattern consistency and frequency band performance consistency are of utmost importance in modern cellular networks. The need to perform well on all frequency bands and requirements from capacity features such as Carrier Aggregation benefit the user by providing stability when the network situation changes in less ideal situations, where: RF environments change, and RF signals fade the whole time. Network capacity is limited and diminishes further over time.
Noise & interference levels keep fluctuating. Network base stations occasionally go out of service due to transmission and other failures. Operator frequency spectrum licences are amended to deploy or remove certain frequency bands and also the engineering team often ‘re-farm’ spectrum to redeploy to other technologies. The same applies to Wi-Fi and other type of RF communication technologies.
In such a dynamic situation, it is most important to deploy technology which works and will remain working effectively tomorrow.
A well-designed antenna comes to its own right when ‘the going gets tough’, because that is where ‘the tough gets going’ so to speak.
Better antennas are designed to perform consistently under most conditions, taking special care during the antenna development, where engineers spend more time on uncompromising optimisation and fine tuning of the antenna performance than the initial design itself. This relentless attention to quality of RF design, mechanically sound and environmental performance makes the well-designed antenna so much more advanced.
As a side note: most of our antenna products take anywhere between 6 months and 12 months to design, often with 10 to 20 different prototypes made and measured in our anechoic test chamber together with various other mechanical and environmental testing before settling on the final design for manufacture. This attention to detail sets Poynting apart from many of our competitors, so that we can offer only the best to our customers.
If you would like more information on selecting an antenna, please contact us at [email protected]. You can also have a look at our webinar titled “Getting to the Poynt: A guide through the antenna specification minefield”, where we discussed some of the items mentioned above in more detail.