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An Introduction to the 5G Small Cell

By Rex Chen

August 23, 2021

LitePoint’s Rex Chen is the author of this blog post providing an introduction to the 5G small cell.

By 2026, the Small Cell Forum expects that 38.3 million small cells will be deployed, with the bulk of those deployments coming from enterprises, followed by urban and rural service provider environments. 

But what is a 5G small cell and why is it important? Think about a 5G small cell as a hybrid between a Wi-Fi router and a macrocell for cellular networks. The compact size and lower power consumption of a small cell means it has many applications. For example, a 5G small cell can provide an extension from the core network into densely urban areas or may be used in indoor settings to extend a private or corporate network within an enterprise. Or, in a metropolitan area to offload users from an overloaded macrocell. Similarly, the small cell can improve coverage and throughput in areas where buildings obstruct the network. 

A 5G small cell may also be deployed in residential or rural areas that have better economics than deploying a macrocell.

The Evolving Roles of Small Cells in Each Wireless Generation

It’s important to note that small cell is not a new technology for 5G. In fact, small cells were deployed in 3G and 4G networks.  

In a 3G code-division multiple access (CDMA) or wideband code-division multiple access (WCDMA) network, small cells were largely used in residential areas as a way to expand coverage so that the cellular network could reach as many users as possible. 

In a 4G network, small cells were used to optimize network deployment CAPEX, as densification of networks in urban areas or in enterprises in large buildings began to take place. 

With 5G, the technology is not just serving smartphones, 5G is connecting everything from smartphones to IoT devices to automobiles to futuristic “killer” applications that are being developed as you read this post. The idea of providing capacity for handheld devices and connectivity for IoT sensors will play a large role in 5G for small cell. 

The ability to deliver multi-gigabit per second is where 5G small cells can really help alleviate issues of densification so that multi-gigabit throughput can be maintained in user-dense applications. In the 5G era, 5G small cells will enable the network to extend coverage and to deliver lower latency, and also serve more users while maintaining multi-gigabit performance.

5G Small Cell Use Cases

5G small cells will play a critical role in a number of use cases. Take for example large venues such as sports complexes or concert halls where thousands of users need to connect within an enclosed area. In order to ensure all users maintain network coverage with good throughput, 5G small cells can be deployed in these facilities and surrounding areas to provide extra capacity so that the influx of users doesn’t exhaust the network.

Another use case is cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) enabling communications between vehicles and between the car and infrastructure. Both of these capabilities are necessary for autonomous automobiles. 5G small cells can be used to build infrastructure that can handle massive communications needed for this application where human lives can be at stake.

In smart cities, 5G small cells can be attached to traffic posts or light posts to enable better coverage in metropolitan areas to ensure the network coverage is there with the necessary throughput for smart city initiatives, analytics and intelligence. 

Finally, 5G small cells can support residential or business network needs. In a smaller community of users, that doesn’t justify the capital costs for a macrocell deployment, a 5G small cell is a great alternative. Placing a 5G small cell near residential buildings or homes, can ensure throughput is not degraded due to lack of coverage. Private 5G networks are being installed in many enterprises to provide blanket coverage for Internet of Things and other Industry 4.0 initiatives.

Small Cell Deployments by Region

The radio frequency supported by 5G small cell deployments will differ based on region. For example, in North America, there will likely be more small cells deployed for 5G frequency range 2 (FR2) millimeter wave (mmWave) as operators try to increase nation-wide coverage using these FR2 frequencies. 5G small cell will be a catalyst for 5G millimeter wave (mmWave) networks because these higher frequency bands have the greatest signal attenuation and small cells can help the coverage gap for network densification.

In China, the  deployments may  come from frequency range 1 (FR1) which operates in the sub 6 GHz bands and thus provides better network coverage for rural areas. In Europe, there will be a combination of FR1 and FR2 5G small cell deployments, depending on the country and availably of these spectrums.

While born in the 3G era, small cells are coming into their own with 5G networks. The expanded capabilities and multiple use cases make small cells an important addition to the cellular network infrastructure.

Please visit the 5G page for more information on LitePoint’s solutions for 5G small cells. And for more information on this topic, please download the replay of my full 5G small cell webinar.


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