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The aesthetic cost of a 5G future

The visual identify of small cell deployment

The future of connectivity is coming – but what will it look like? Too often, the hype surrounding new technology inhabits the world of the abstract, inconsistent with the lived experience of those who will ultimately interact with these devices. The Future of Connectivity Art Project explores this future through the lens of design, aesthetics and visual stimulus – and ultimately the eye of the consumer. Art can help to tell a different story about what our world could look like. This series aims to provide a more complete view of the options that exist with new connectivity technologies and the opportunities they present.

5G’s technical capabilities are well documented and the benefits, while not yet experienced at mass scale, are expected to be game changing. But as it begins to roll out, attention is turning beyond the hypothetical to how this technology will exist in our world.

There are many factors to consider in the deployment of new network technologies, and the recently announced inquiry into 5G by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts will seek to do just that. The major areas of interest for the inquiry include network coverage requirements for the various areas of Australia, proximity to existing sites and planned new sites, existing infrastructure we can leverage, the height of available structures, free space and capacity of those structures, topography and the surrounding environment. A less technical but no less important factor is aesthetics.

Already our suburbs are dotted with these marks of connectivity: node cabinets for residents and business, the 4G cell towers atop buildings and other infrastructure across Australia. With 5G and other technologies yet to come, we will see a proliferation of even more network infrastructure, in particular small cell network connections.

Projections suggest these small cells may be five to 10 times more visible than the infrastructure we have today. With this in mind, considering the impact they’ll have on our public and private spaces is key.

The mobile networks supporting 3G and 4G variants in Australia are predominantly based on towers and poles. There are tens of thousands of these sites in Australia, which is representative of the density of the population. In comparison to the approximately 200,000 sites in the US and 2,000,000 sites in China, we are comparatively small in the scale of our network deployment. But this changes with 5G.

5G requires a denser network with small cells about the size and shape of a backpack. These will need to be placed on street infrastructure or ‘street furniture’ – light poles, signs, walls – close to homes or high-use locations. Due to the limited range of these small cells (approx. 500m), the 5G network will require tens of thousands of deployments to reach users and provide unbroken connection experiences.

5G is unique for many reasons, but an increasingly obvious one is the need for a number of parties to come together – beyond just telcos and network providers – to create favourable deployment conditions and valuable uses of the network and commercial opportunities. For example, small cell deployments will require numerous stakeholders – local councils, communities/community groups, town planners, commercial property owners, device manufacturers, operators and network providers – to agree on elements such as zoning, installation rules and exemptions, and shared compensation models. The speed at which these, until now, relatively disparate groups can work together will determine not only the speed of 5G deployment in Australia but also the time it will take for us to benefit from it.

In 2019, we have two of the first 25 global operators rolling out 5G, with a further 26 expected to deploy commercially in 2020.  By comparison, Deloitte Global is predicting in China there will be 425 million 5G users by the year 2025 (out of a possible 825 million internet subscribers); a feat made possible by the control the government has over the deployment ecosystem. Outside of direct intervention by governments and regulators to bring this ecosystem together, a facilitation approach will likely be required that is bound by mutually agreeable outcomes. 

A key issue that may hamper the coming together of this ecosystem and the ability to speed up deployment is the aesthetics of small cell infrastructure. Given their imposition on our public spaces, community groups and local councils may have grounds for concern over the impact of small cells in some cases. In fact, at a recent forum on 5G for smart cities (attended by Deloitte), visual identity was voted as one of the most pressing issues to resolve in the deployment roadmap, alongside issues like monetisation and interoperability of technologies.

But what would a new aesthetic look like? Could we, as a nation, use small cell deployment to create not just ground-breaking connectivity but increased amenity? What visual identity framework could we consider?

As there is no current aesthetic guide in place, we have the opportunity to consider factors including artistic style, environment, self-powering features and utility. Using an artist’s impression, we’ve brought to life some of these factors by asking:

  • What if we used towers to bring explore an artistic/cultural/historical message through artwork?
  • What if towers were used to provide valuable information to citizens, such as air quality or pollution levels?
  • What if these towers used solar panels to produce energy for communities to use?
  • What if towers blended into the natural environment through mirroring or contrasting local vegetation?

Precedents for this artistic application to small cells already exist with street cabinets, which have taken on a decidedly local look and feel. While it may not be top priority for the parliamentary inquiry, it is likely to be a part of the debate for a number of stakeholders and will be a key issue to resolve if we’re to secure their participation.


The focus of the parliamentary inquiry into 5G is a step in the right direction. It brings awareness to the opportunities and challenges of 5G at a time when approximately 30 percent of Australians are likely to switch to 5G when it is available or upon hearing good things. As the government and ecosystem involved in 5G deployment considers the factors necessary to deploy small cells, perhaps there may be space to consider an aesthetic framework. In doing so, we could set expectations for the visual identity of this new connectivity and its impact on the spaces in which we live.