5G and the Small Cell Network

By: Megan Davis

24, October, 2019


5G - 5G conference - Event info - Industry - IoT - small cells - Telecoms -

Small Cell 5G Expo

Imagine what would happen if your autonomous car received the required data a millisecond later than it should have? Worse still, what if a connected patient monitoring system sends out data patient vitals just a bit late?

In the realm of the Internet of Things (IoT), we cannot afford a delay in data transmission. This is precisely where 5G technology comes into picture. 5G technology offers low power consumption and low latency while delivering higher data speeds. However, this is not possible with the existing macro cells infrastructure that suffers from signal loss. A more ubiquitous network connection is needed and small cells can help create the optimum structure.

In fact, the deployment of 5G technology is unimaginable without small cells — the low-powered portable base stations which will ensure signal continuity and low latency. With 5G deployment underway in countries, like South Korea, Japan, Germany, and the USA, and poised for rollout in some others, the sales of these small cells are forecast to reach USD 52mn in 2025 [1]. Of the three small cell types — the femtocells, picocells and microcells — femtocells already account for 50% of the global RAN market share as of 2018 [2].

The small cells network operates in combination with the macrocells. Think of it as a relay race where the baton is passed from one participant to the next. Similarly, the signal from the macrocells is transmitted to the microcells, picocells or femtocells depending on the requirement, like the number of users, bandwidth, coverage and location. Thus, the web of cells ensures signal continuity to the finish line.

The Network Snags

For the network to operate efficiently, a large number of these small cells have to be installed. Moreover, considering the rapidly evolving technologies and the need for uninterrupted data exchange, speedy deployment is the need of the hour. It involves identification of the most appropriate locations for installations and add to that the lengthy process in obtaining permits from authorities, excessive fees and restrictions on the placement of these cells. For instance, it can take up to 2 years in the US to deploy a single small cell [3]. There are also the health concerns over human exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields of small cells that has triggered opposition from common people. For example, people recently protested in front of the Swiss parliament building against 5G wireless technology rollout that they feared could damage people’s health.  

The other issue that network operators face is the cost associated with the leasing and maintenance of the sites. For macrocells, the capital and operating expenditure of the cells was borne by the operator. However, for small cells, operators and subscribers have been passing the buck.

Another challenge lies in simplifying the installation process, for example, leveraging the existing data cabling. Japan and South Korea have done just that, densifying their networks using macro-cell C-RAN made possible by the widespread availability of fibre backhaul. However, many cities do not have widespread fibre networks, posing a challenge.

Looks like it’s going to be a while before we can let our car do the driving!


Recognising these challenges, trade groups, telecommunication equipment firms and governments have been brainstorming on possible solutions.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has outlined some, like amending the local regulatory requirements for small cells, gaining stakeholder support for small cell installation and development of a small cell information exchange3. On the radio technology and architecture front, MIMO (multi-input multi-output), massive MIMO, CoMP (coordinated multipoint), CA (carrier aggregation) and virtual RAN (vRAN) have been proposed for use with small cells. C-RAN is another architecture solution that has been proposed and used for its benefits of improved coordination between cells and cost reductions.

Telecommunication equipment firms have been addressing some of the challenges by developing suitable solutions. For instance, Nokia offers a HetNet solution, suitable for cities. It integrates macro cells, small cells and all technologies (GSM/WCDMA/LTE/Wi-Fi). Meanwhile, Qualcomm Technologies’ small cell solutions facilitate scalability and ease of deployment. Ericsson offers an entire portfolio of small cell solutions, specifically designed for indoor, outdoor and street installation. To address the challenges, companies like Accelleran have developed software solutions with flexibility at the core. Accelleran’s Small Cell software enables system integrators to use the hardware of their choice. It also supports different small cell architectures. Additionally, some firms have offered small cells-as-a-service (SCaaS) to accelerate deployment. For example, Verizon undertook a major small cell deployment in San Francisco in 2016, which involved a partnership with an infrastructure provider to run 300 to 400 nodes on behalf of the network operator.

However, regulatory hurdles remain in some countries while governments in some others extend support. The US Federal Communications Commission had set guidelines for 5G deployment but recent repeals of certain portions of the rules have thwarted the efforts. On the other hand, the Central Government of China has provided support for R&D and deployment of 5G. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has been looking into regulations to support the development of small cells and 5G infrastructure. Meanwhile, amidst the trade war, the US has been lobbying allies in Europe against the use of Huawei network equipment over concerns of possible electronic spying by China.

How can these challenges be overcome to unlock the full potential of 5G technology? Find out this and more from industry experts at the upcoming 5G Expo North America 2019 in California.