Population density maps: Why RF planners need the highest resolution possible

RF planners need high-resolution population density maps today. Here’s why you should not accept anything less.

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Population density map: Why RF planners need high resolution

A population density map is an important tool for RF planners. However, traditional low-resolution population maps could cause problems for network rollout, densification, and upgrade plans today. 

Key takeaways:

  • Using low-resolution population density maps introduces a significant risk of inaccuracy and waste. 
  • High-resolution population density maps give you a much clearer idea of where to place cell towers and equipment.  
  • This is particularly important in the 5G era. 
  • High-res population maps are important in both urban areas and rural areas. 

Whenever telecom companies plan out new infrastructure installations, the first question has to be: what is the population density in the target area?

Population density informs every subsequent decision – from the size, height, and location of cell towers, to the angle of radio antennas, to base station position, and more. You need to know the number of people who will be spending time in an area, so you can choose the right equipment and install it effectively. 

And this is where population density maps are invaluable. Also known as population maps, they provide a visual representation of how many people live, work, or spend time in an area. This information can provide RF planners with a quick method for estimating the appropriate infrastructure required to serve those people. 

For many years, telecom firms have used low-resolution density maps as part of this process. In the early era of cellular telecommunications, this wasn’t a major problem – low-frequency radio waves were transmitted over wide areas. When it came to population density, you only needed to have rough estimates of how many people lived in a place to provide a good level of service. 
However, with the emergence of 5G (which uses high-frequency radio waves that can only travel short distances) and the general increase in mobile device usage, RF planners need much more accurate information about where their customers are. Let’s see why.

Overview of how telcos use population density maps

In the telecom context, a population density map isn’t just about counting heads; it’s about understanding where potential customers are. These visual representations display the number of people living per unit area, thereby offering insights into where network demand could be highest or where untapped markets may exist.

Population maps are used in a wide variety of ways:

  • Network Planning and Optimization: High population density areas are potential hotspots for network congestion. Identifying these regions helps in pre-emptive network capacity planning and resource allocation.
  • Estimating Demand: Through these maps, geomarketing teams can identify densely populated areas that are not yet targeted, thereby revealing potential markets. 
  • Unserved Areas Identification: Conversely, low-density areas are often under-served or not served at all. These could provide opportunities to be the first network provider, offering a competitive advantage.

The problem with low-res population density maps

Most traditional population density maps break urban areas and rural areas down into units of 1000m x 1000m, indicating the number of people per square kilometer. They’ll typically use a colour spectrum to indicate a higher or lower number of people. 

Low-resolution density maps, long used in RF planning, are gradually becoming obsolete in the industry for several reasons.

They are imprecise

A low-resolution population density map will show how many people live in a square kilometer. But they don’t tell you where people live in that area. 

For example, a population maps might tell you that 600 people live in a 1000m x 1000m neighbourhood. However, what it won’t show is that almost all the residential units are clustered in tower blocks on the northern side of the area – the rest is just empty parkland. 

Use this population density map. You might buy several base stations for the neighborhood. In fact, only one is necessary. This single station serves the small, populated section.

They mean you could make incorrect decisions

Skewing perceptions about what kind of equipment is needed and where a low-resolution population density map can do this. For example, population maps of rural areas may indicate that an area has a low population, so a telecom firm might choose to not install new infrastructure there. However, if a village has several hotels and is a popular tourist destination, then the lack of service would be a problem. 

Limited value in the 5G era

In the 5G era, RF planners need to consider the presence of trees, buildings, and bodies of water when choosing the location of base stations – these obstacles are known to attenuate 5G signals. However, a low-resolution population density map won’t show you this kind of information. For example, if there’s a small forest cutting through a neighborhood, that would have a major influence on where you place 5G base stations, but it wouldn’t show up on the PopMap.

Learn more: Research into 5G propagation models

Challenges in developing countries

In many emerging countries, incomplete or outdated population data can really hamper telecom infrastructure rollouts. Cities and national governments may lack census information, and there may be limited information about populations living in informal settlements. Low-resolution population maps could mean you miss out entire neighbourhoods that do not appear on ‘official’ maps. 

Research: high-resolution population maps vs low-resolution pop maps

In 2020, LuxCarta conducted a research study comparing high-resolution population maps with low-resolution population maps to investigate how they would affect radio frequency planning. The study compared two population maps at the country-scale. 

Low-resolution population map: 500m to 1-kilometer

In the low-resolution map, the country’s population was equally distributed over the entire area. Essentially, 98% of the area covered corresponded with 98% of the population covered. 

This is, of course, highly unlikely in reality. Using a low-resolution map would suggest that the country’s population is evenly distributed across the territory. 

If RF planners were to base their plans on a low-resolution popmap, they would need to distribute cell towers and base stations evenly across the entire territory. 

High-resolution map: 10m

Using LuxCarta’s PopMaps at 10 meter resolution, it becomes clear that only 27% of the country’s territory is populated. This doesn’t mean that the rest of the country doesn’t need to receive coverage (since people travel), but it does help to prioritize where new infrastructure should be installed. 

By using a high-resolution population map, RF planners can install equipment where it’s needed most - and avoid wasting time and money installing it in places it will not be used.

LuxCarta’s high-resolution population density maps for RF planning

Today’s RF planners need precise, reliable, and accurate information about population density when rolling out telecom infrastructure. And this is where Luxcarta’s RF planning solutions help. Our population density maps offer unrivalled resolution down to 10 metres – making them one hundred times more precise compared with other sources. They are also up-to-date – using the latest satellite images of the planet’s surface to ensure they include new towns and settlements. 

Luxcarta employs the latest census data, enhanced with cutting-edge algorithms for accurate projections of population density. Our unique combination of satellite imagery and land use classification allows us to distribute population data realistically, making our maps especially useful for telecom companies.

Using our high resolution 10m x 10m population maps, you can estimate population density at (or near) the building scale. This means:

  • You can plan exactly where to place cell towers and base stations for maximum reach. 
  • Your business serves customers well in both urban and rural areas.
  • You avoid wasting money purchasing and connecting equipment which ends up underutilised. 
  • You save time by avoiding unnecessary travel to sites that turn out to be unsuitable. 

To learn how our population density maps can support roll-out, upgrade, and densification projects for your telecom firm, contact us today

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