Small Cells: the good, the bad, and the unstoppable…

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The 4th Industrial Revolution is upon us, and it will be driven by technologies like 5G wireless. The potential impact of ubiquitous 5G to revolutionize the global economy should not be underestimated. Undergirding the new wireless infrastructure will be a whole ecosystem of small cell antennas, broadly distributed, densely populated, and creatively interspersed where people live and work. Small cells are crucial for providing the coverage, capacity, and network performance that will make 5G so revolutionary.

We have all seen how macrocells (aka, cell towers) have aided in the development of 4G/LTE technology. Base stations that support the current mobile network can handle both voice and data signaling covering wide geographical areas. But while coverage may be a great benefit of macrocells, they will struggle to meet the high usage demands of growing networks. Microcells (aka, small cells), on the other hand, work together in densely populated areas to provide capacity far beyond the limits of macrocells.

Just as 5G will play a role in the new digital revolution, small cell technology will be an integral part of the 5G rollout. It will not only improve network efficiency but also lower costs and improve network manageability.

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Small Cell Advantages

The march of innovation in the wireless space is not due to one particular technology on its own. Rather, it is several innovations working together that will each contribute to the upcoming revolution.

One reason that 5G needs small cells is increased capacity. The number of connected devices is growing exponentially. The number of predicted IoT devices runs in the billions or trillions, depending on who is making the prediction. IDC forecasts worldwide spending on IoT to reach $1.2 trillion by 2022. An increase in devices means an increase in demand on network resources.

The efficiencies created by new approaches such as beam-forming and millimeter waves will help small cells improve the bottom line of cellular providers. These reduced costs and increased benefits at the provider level can then trickle down into the CAPEX and OPEX for businesses all along the chain.

And while microcells may not offer the long distance coverage of macrocell towers, they do offer the advantage of increased coverage by their increased density. Small cells are expected to be placed everywhere — on buildings, in street lamps, above traffic lights — creating a kind of swarm of antennas throughout urban areas.

Small cells operate on low power over short ranges. They are transmission systems that may be considered base stations just like the macrocells, but they have a much smaller footprint. These low power transmitters are more nimble and versatile than their macrocell counterparts. They have both indoor and outdoor applications. A dense network of small cells can relay data throughout the city and easily hand off signals from one cell to another.

Believe it or not, small cells can also play a part in extending the battery life of handsets. They do this by reducing the draw on power. In fact, just last year, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam predicted a virtual 5G phone utopia, with handset battery life lasting as long as one month. That’s because of the very low latency expected in the new wireless environment.

And the advent of SD-WAN management of vast networks means that a centralized controller can make decisions for a large number of dispersed small cells. Intelligent networks will make wireless management that much easier.

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Challenges and Drawbacks

It’s not all smooth sailing for microcell technology, however. One of the distinct disadvantages of small cell technology is the sheer number that is required to make 5G work. While expectations are high for what the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has deemed IMT-2020, the agreement to reach 5G technological standards by 2020, some naysayers have raised concerns about the time it will take to actually get all the infrastructure in place.

Though small cells’ low power (100W to 500W) may make them easy to deploy, it also simultaneously limits the coverage of individual cells. Some localities that are undergoing a 5G rollout are complaining about all the antennas being placed in every conceivable place. This is a far cry from the deployment of LTE towers and equipment, which generally took advantage of existing 3G tower sites and other infrastructure. Getting power to these small devices spread throughout a city’s architecture can also be a challenge, not to mention the additional deployment requirements such as leases, permits, operational costs, and ongoing maintenance.

Small cells may be small and versatile, but a lot of them are needed to make a network. Whatever cost savings that come from per unit deployment must be balanced against the high volume of units to be installed. Just like the new world of IoT will be made of an untold number of devices, 5G will require more small cells than you can easily count. According to Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson, “our high level conclusion is that while small cells are growing like weeds, expectations for their long term return potential should probably be tempered.”

And we can’t end our analysis of potential issues without mentioning environmental issues, a heated subject with passionate responses on both sides. A statement from an organization called the Environmental Health Trust proclaims a laundry list of reasons that 5G small cells should not be commissioned. A document signed by 200+ scientists and doctors states:

“We recommend a moratorium on the roll-out of the fifth generation, 5G, for telecommunication until potential hazards for human health and the environment have been fully investigated by scientists independent from industry…RF-EMF has been proven to be harmful for humans and the environment.”

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Conclusion

It will take a lot of money, effort, and resources to implement a full-fledged 5G network with its vast host of small cells. And objections to the presence of myriad microcells could plague installers as the rollout continues. But the value of the new technology for a burgeoning internet will likely outweigh — or at least drown out — any real or perceived drawbacks. You can’t stop progress, they say, and chances are the 5G small cell rollout will continue to barrel down the tracks at a healthy pace. Industrial revolutions don’t really let little things get in their way…

Hands-on company builder; Founder & Entrepreneur with 3 exits, who enjoys scaling companies 24x7x365; Blockchain Pioneer. Founder and CEO at FanVestor /#Fvestor

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