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Indoor 5G gets a boost as small cells come to the rescue

5G is good, but indoor 5G is a challenge. Enterprises are examining the introduction of small cells to help them take advantage of the new cellular standard.

One of the main drawbacks of millimeter wave-based 5G is that wireless high-band technology does not work well indoors. This is because millimeter wave, or MM wave, signals struggle to penetrate building walls and certain types of glass, thus hobbling indoor 5G performance. Now, various vendors have stepped up to help solve this crucial problem by developing MM wave 5G small cells.

In a nutshell, a small cell is a low-powered cellular base station that can transfer data at gigabit speeds using a variety of spectrums. The gadgets, about the size of a pizza box, have a range between 10 meters and a few kilometers.

Among the first suppliers to offer small cells is Samsung, which introduced its Link Cell device in late September 2020. The device supports the 28 GHz MM wave band. The company said the compact small cell -- combining baseband, radio and antenna elements -- weighs just over 6 pounds (2.7 kilograms). Verizon, the main U.S. operator using MM wave technology, expects to begin selling in-building small cell equipment before the end of 2020, using devices developed by Samsung, as well as Corning.

Supporting the development of private networks

Carrier moves with MM wave will enable business customers to roll out their own 5G private networks. "By combining a private core, an indoor cell site [and a mobile edge compute platform] in a facility, an enterprise can have a private and secure, ultra-reliable, high-speed, low-latency 5G network," said Adam Koeppe, Verizon's senior vice president of technology planning and development, in a statement, adding that such a network will potentially enable a business to have the cloud within their facility as well.

macrocell vs. small cell vs. femtocell
Compare the different base stations used for 5G deployment, including macrocells and small cells.

Midband 5G networks will also require the use of interior cell sites to overcome indoor 5G performance problems. To that end, small cells will play a role in T-Mobile's major rollout of 5G in the 2.5 GHz band in the U.S., as well as future 5G deployments in the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service band and the C-band. Small cells from Ericsson, Nokia, Sierra Wireless and others will all be used in the midband arena.

Midband indoor small cells are already coming online, with many more radio rollouts anticipated in 2021 and beyond. Hotels, malls, hospitals and other office buildings are among the businesses expected to deploy indoor 5G systems.

This was last published in November 2020

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