Small Cells, Big Impact: Unlocking the Power of 5G Networks

Rajeev Gandhi, Head of Technology, Telco Network Engineering

Small cell technology is instrumental in realizing the full potential of 5G networks by addressing coverage, capacity, and latency challenges in diverse environments.

Rajeev Gandhi, Head of Technology, Telco Network Engineering

For the 5G network to deliver its technical promises, the only panacea that currently exists is small cell technology, which provides significantly higher data rates, lower latency, and increased device connectivity compared to its predecessors. The network aims to achieve capacity, throughput, and coverage for better network coverage and service accessibility. These are possible only by adapting small cell technology, which is considered apt for delivering the outcomes that 5G is designed to achieve, such as better network capacity, coverage, and overall performance.

Small cells are a key component of the heterogeneous network (HetNet) architecture, which combines various cell types to optimize coverage and capacity. They are essential for implementing 5G technologies such as beamforming and millimeter-wave communication.


What is small cell technology?

Small cells are low-powered radio access nodes that operate in licensed and unlicensed spectrum bands. They have a shorter range compared to traditional macrocells but provide high data rates and capacity in areas with high user density. They cover a small geographical area and can come in handy for both indoor and outdoor applications. Small cells are a miniaturized version of the macrocell technology of cell towers.


Distinct types of small cells


Low-cost small cells that extend network coverage, offload network congestion, and increase data capacity. They have a coverage area of about 10 to 50 meters and are limited to between 6 and 18 users.


Also, low-cost small cells can be introduced to improve data throughput and extend coverage for small enterprise applications. They have a coverage area of about 100 to 250 meters, and the number of users ranges between 32 and 64.


Medium-cost small cells with high capacity can be applied to projects like smart cities. They have a coverage area of about 500 meters to 2.5 kilometers and can service up to 200 simultaneous users.


These small cells are designed for urban environments and provide coverage in high-density areas. The coverage area of a metrocell can vary but is typically in the range of a few hundred meters to a couple of kilometers.


Small cell key features

High density

Small cells are deployed in densely populated areas to support a large number of connected devices, reducing network congestion.

Low power consumption

Small cells are designed to be energy-efficient, contributing to a more sustainable and cost-effective network infrastructure.

Easy deployment

Small cells can be deployed on existing infrastructure, such as streetlights or utility poles, facilitating rapid and cost-effective deployment.


Why not macrocells?

As 5G utilizes a network of sophisticated technologies to deliver ultra-high transmission speeds and low-latency connections through high-frequency radio waves, a new infrastructure is required to enable uninterrupted and faster network coverage.

Macrocells have high power and low frequencies. The 5G network uses high frequencies and has a range substantially less than 3G/4G. Hence, a 5G network will not be able to deploy services by using macrocells.

However, 5G networks can also connect with macrocells such as cell towers. This would enable lower 5G frequencies than the higher frequencies delivered by the small cell’s millimeter wave capabilities. Using macrocells would result in higher latency (time difference between the user’s intimidation and the network’s response). This, in turn, would negate the technical promises made by the 5G network.


Factors that affect performance

To provide coverage, the small cell miniature base stations will be deployed in higher-density groups called small cell networks. Small cell hardware units are designed to reduce complexity, making implementation faster and easier.

The individual small cells work together in substantial numbers (100s or 1000s strong) to relay 5G signals across a city or a region. Backhaul connections can be made using fiber, wired, or microwave links. Configuration is less complex, with fewer necessities such as backhaul and power sources.

Factors that can limit the cell coverage and data capacity are:


Future applications

Small cell technology can be used to provide better user experience and mobile broadband connectivity in highly populated areas.

Small cell technology is instrumental in realizing the full potential of 5G networks by addressing coverage, capacity, and latency challenges in diverse environments. Deploying small cells is a critical strategy for building robust and efficient 5G networks to meet the growing demands of the modern, connected world.

Despite its disadvantages, such as the limited number of users under one cell, high power requirements, and expensive larger deployments, small cell is still the best technology to meet the standard requirements of 5G networks and future applications. To learn more about UST’s small cell capabilities, visit