As the next evolution in high-speed wireless service, 5G utilizes a network of sophisticated technologies to deliver ultra-high transmission speeds and low-latency connections through high frequency radio waves. Though 5G uses much of the existing 4G network as a backbone, 5G needs new infrastructure to support the new spectrum to fully deliver on its technical promise.
One of the most prominent proposed ways of building the needed capacity is small cell technology. As the 5G rollout continues, there’s a lot of conversation about whether small cells can really deliver the future of 5G.
What Is Small Cell Technology?
Normal cell phone towers associated with 3G and 4G networks are also known as macrocells. They’re the base stations that broadcast wireless signals at frequencies typically between 600 and 2300 MHz, in North America. Other regions utilize other, similar, frequencies. Those are the familiar networks that delivered the first high-speed broadband services for mobile devices.
Macrocells are normally high-power and have a long range, but at the higher frequencies commonly used by 5G, it’s not possible to deploy service over the macrocells because the range of 5G is substantially less then 3G/4G. Poor service can result in, among several symptoms, higher latency — which simply refers to the time between a user’s actions and the network’s ability to respond.
High-band 5G uses radio frequencies above 24GHz, typically referred to as “millimeter wave (mmW)” frequencies. These allow for much faster speeds because there is more spectrum used, and all but eliminates latency. While the difference in speed is dramatic, mmW transmissions also have more limited range than their lower-frequency counterparts. Delivering this kind of signal with enough bandwidth to accommodate the expected demand requires different kinds of infrastructure.
According to many, small cell technology is necessary to that infrastructure. Small cells are a miniaturized version of the macrocell technology of cell towers. Individually, they use a lot less power and have shorter ranges anywhere from a few meters to a few hundred meters.
In order to provide coverage, these miniature base stations have to be deployed in higher density, in groups or swarms called small cell networks. The idea is that the individual small cells work together in huge numbers, hundreds or even thousands strong, to relay 5G signals across a city or a region.
Will 5G Small Cells Be Able to Cover Long Distances?
One of the big questions about small cells is whether they will really be able to cover the long distances that are eventually going to be demanded of 5G service, since existing nationwide coverage is presently a bit limited and patchy, and that is with lower band spectrum. The answer is that it’s possible, but there are some major caveats.
Challenge 1: The Sheer Number of Small Cells Needed
The sheer quantity of small cells that would be needed to fully power a truly nationwide 5G network is staggering. The cost of producing millions of these devices is just the first step in deploying a network.
For every small cell that needs to be placed, there are other factors to consider:
– Analyzing network traffic to work out where to place small cells
– Selecting and acquiring a site
– Supplying power to that site
– Trenching fiber
– Providing a data connection
– Maintaining each node in the small cell network
Each of these factors adds to the time and expense it takes to build a small cell network. Often, local laws require permits or have specific regulations that must be complied with. Power limitations can limit the number of small cells that can be installed in certain places. Sufficient data connection, access to a fiber backbone, may be a challenge. All of that could add up to making small cells less viable as a networking solution in some places.
Challenge 2: Small Cells Aren’t Carrier Agnostic
At present, small cell networks are generally designed around delivering 5G signals for one carrier. Multi-carrier small cells have been discussed forever, are technically possible, but are not available. So, for multiple carriers to service an area, each mobile operator needs to navigate a tangle of local regulations and technical limitations to design separate but overlapping networks.
Given how complicated and expensive this could ultimately make the whole enterprise, there is a growing argument in some quarters that the carrier-exclusive small cell model needs to be jettisoned in favor of network sharing. However, we’re not there yet.
Challenge 3: Small Cell Networks Could Lower Property Values
Individual small cells are, well, small. They’re unobtrusive and blend into the landscape or background of settings they’re placed in, and they don’t require dedicated generators. As they multiply in number, these advantages degrade.
Some communities with small cell networks complained about unsightly proliferations of antennas that could be enough of a visual irritant and source of clutter to drive down property values. Wherever multiple carriers have to build small cell networks, that problem could worsen.
Alternatives to Current Small Cell Technology
The challenges faced by small cell networking are by no means necessarily fatal, but they do pose serious questions about whether this technology alone can be the future of 5G. Other potential methods of boosting network bandwidth to handle the extraordinary demand on capacity that 5G will present are listed below:
Neutral Host Small Cells
One alternative to the current small cell paradigm is the idea of the neutral host small cell as a platform. In this scenario, small cell networks would be built by a third-party that isn’t the networks’ sole carrier. Multiple mobile operators would then have access to the small cell, eliminating at least the prospect of redundant competing networks being run in a limited space by different carriers. This kind of wholesale small cell service is already cropping up in some Asia-Pacific centers.
The challenges of the neutral host small cell model are essentially non-technical. The business and support model each carrier is graded on has created an economic structure wherein it doesn’t profit to collaborate on this kind of service.
Heterogenous Networks (HetNets)
A heterogenous network or HetNet simply refers to bringing a diverse collection of service methods together — including traditional macrocells, small cells, existing WiFi and updated fiber-optic capability — to deliver the needed capacity increase for 5G. Essentially, it’s a more coordinated version of the mixture of technologies and approaches that exists now.
Instead of relying on small cells to bear the whole burden of modernizing the infrastructure, it proposes the use of small cells mainly to patch holes in coverage that can’t be addressed in other ways.
As networking in general evolves, it is fully anticipated that the HetNet topologies will become commonplace.
Virtualized Radio Access Networks (V-RAN)
Virtualization has been around as a concept for quite a while and started to see practical implementation by the turn of the 21st century. Basically, virtualization is the principle of using software distributed across a powerful computer network to emulate functions that would have once required hardware. An interesting everyday example of virtualization is the programmer who used the popular building-block game Minecraft to build functioning virtual computers.
Virtualization is already at work in 5G, used to run much more sophisticated versions of those virtual Minecraft machines. It plays a key role in coordinating small cell networks, for example. Some proposals would take the principle much further and generate virtual machines that can actually provide access to 5G radio frequencies. These virtual networks would partially alleviate the need for networking hardware and would be able to expand capacity in new and creative ways.
So, at any rate, goes the theory. V-RAN architecture isn’t yet in widespread use, but it’s certainly a hot topic. One of its touted benefits is that it would make network sharing much easier.
What Role Should Small Cells Play in 5G Networks?
With the current churn of possibility, new technologies and proposed architectures could play out in any number of ways. It’s hard to speculate on what a mature 5G network will end up looking like.
It does seem clear that small cell technology still has some evolving to do. Small cells are almost certain to play some key role in the full delivery of 5G. As they presently exist, it’s not at all clear that they’re up to being the future of 5G on their own.
In the meantime, mobile device users are presented with a more immediate problem. The 5G rollout isn’t going to end the common problems of dropped calls and weak cell signal that users have always had to deal with. As the 5G network matures, owners of cell phones and smartphones are still going to need a way to address those issues.
Fortunately, there is a proven technology in place for making sure your cell signal is consistent.
Solving mmWave Challenges With 5G Repeaters
A complementary networking technology is becoming seen as a core part of the mmWave networks: the repeater. Repeaters offer a couple critical advantages — neither fiber connection nor data access is required. This represents as much as a 50% CAPEX savings and a significant OPEX savings, leading to better ROI and less TCO.
Repeater technology has advanced such that many of the concerns of past network planners have been addressed. One such concern was noise rise. The performance of a wireless network and the connecting devices therein is affected in a significant way by noise. Noise is any unwanted radio signal in the frequency band of interest. The (wanted) signal to (unwanted) noise ratio (SiNR) is often a telling marker for network performance. Traditional repeaters didn’t have the smarts to adjust frequencies, reduce power, sense error conditions, etc. This could lead to noisy behavior and negative outcomes in the network.
However, modern, high-performance repeaters available today interact with the network in many of the same ways as a smartphone, or other piece of high-tech infrastructure. They feature advanced network safety modes, remote administration, intelligent gain control, and much more. They have become much friendlier in network.
In collaboration with 5G mmWave technology leader, ED2 Corporation, we’re expanding the WilsonPro 5G repeater offerings to support highband and future midband solutions.
WilsonPro Provides Reliable Cell Signal in an Evolving World
The 5G network is in a period of flux, growth, and change, but that doesn’t mean your cell signal has to be in question. Cell signal repeaters from WilsonPro are a trusted and reliable solution to weak signal.
At WilsonPro, we’re working to provide cell signal solutions that work across the 5G spectrum, from low-band solutions to mmW tech. Our repeaters work on every network and with all U.S. carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile/Sprint, and UScellular.
No matter what device you’re using, we offer faster internet speeds, quicker downloads, and better streaming. Contact WilsonPro today to learn more.