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March 27, 2018

What is a Small Cell? A Brief Explainer .

Anderson Sullivan

There has been a lot of talk about 5G this year. From the Super Bowl to the Winter Olympics, the next generation of wireless has been on show for the world. So while you have probably heard how 5G will enable smart cities and the Internet of Things, have you heard about the small cells that will power these next-gen networks? And what exactly are small cells? We were hoping you would ask…

A small cell installation consists of small radio equipment and antennas that can be placed on structures such as streetlights, the sides of buildings, or poles. They are about the size of a pizza box, and are essential for transmitting data to and from a wireless device.

Small cells look completely different than the wireless infrastructure we have seen in the past. We are used to what are called macro cells—those tall cell towers you see along highways and on city rooftops. Small cells are, well, smaller. They are lower-power cell sites that are installed every few blocks, instead of miles apart.

High-density placement is key for small cells because in addition to traditional low-band spectrum, they can transmit data using mid- and high-band spectrum—and those airwaves cannot travel as far.

But these mid- and high-band frequencies will help bolster 5G network capacity, due to their ability to send larger quantities of data at higher speeds…think downloading a high-definition video in mere seconds.

Each small cell installation requires three simple things: power; backhaul—fiber optic cable or microwave for transmission to the core network—and a permitted space for installation.

Small cells are unobtrusive and can be installed in just a couple of hours.


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It only takes about an hour or two install a small cell, but approval can take a couple of years. Proposed FCC rules modernizing historic and environmental review are a critical first step. Action like this at every level of government could add hundreds of billions to the U.S. economy and power innovations that will reshape our lives. We need new rules for new 5G networks. We’re ready to make 5G a reality. Are you?

The number of small cells deployed is predicted to rapidly increase over the next few years from about 13,000 small cells in 2017 to over 800,000 total deployments by 2026.

With an estimated 550% increase in small cell installations this year, we could be seeing the benefits of the next generation of wireless before we know it. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to living in the futuristic world 5G is poised to make possible.

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