small cell

Contributor(s): Sarah Lewis

Small cell is an overarching term for wireless network base stations with a low radio frequency power output, footprint and range. The name derives from the equipment's physical size as small cells are about the measurements of a pizza box and can be placed on structures such as lampposts, sides of buildings or poles.

Small cells can transfer data using the low-, mid- and high-band spectrum, either licensed or unlicensed. The ability to utilize multiple spectrum frequencies boosts network bandwidth, increases data transmission and improves speed. However, this does limit range to between ten meters and two kilometers. Due to their compact dimensions, these lower-power cell stations are typically installed every few blocks rather than miles apart, making them perfect for dense, urban areas.

Providing a solution to the increasing global data traffic, small cells complement macrocells to improve coverage, capacity and user experience.

Types of small cells

  • Femtocells: devices similar to routers that generally have a maximum range of 10 meters, can only accommodate a few users at a time and are typically deployed in homes.
  • Picocells: have a larger range of up to 200 meters, can support a maximum of 100 users and are typically installed in large indoor areas such as shopping malls.
  • Microcells: the most powerful small cell with a range of up to two kilometers and are usually placed on traffic lights or signs.

Advantages of small cells

  • Quick to install
  • Unobtrusive
  • Increases capacity in densely populated urban areas
  • Improves coverage
  • Reduces power consumption causing extended battery life

Is lower in cost with higher flexibility as compared to macrocells

This was last updated in September 2018

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