Will 5G Small Cells Suffer the Same Fate as Previous Generation Small Cells?

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2Q 2022 | IN-6532

5G mobile data traffic is growing at an exponential rate, forcing network operators to upgrade capacity. With a limited number of available new macro sites and a limited amount of spectrum, the cost-effective option is through the dense deployment of 5G small cells.

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5G Mobile Data Traffic Grows at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 63%, Reaching 1,676 Exabytes in 2026


5G promises ultra-capacity, ultra-fast data rates, higher energy efficiency, low latency, and support of massive connectivity. All these benefits come at a cost of skyrocketing mobile data traffic demands. According to ABI Research, 5G mobile data traffic demand is growing exponentially, from 145 Exabytes in 2021 to 1,676 Exabytes in 2026, a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 63%. The fast-growing data demands push network capacity to its limit, particularly in dense urban areas where it is challenging to secure new cell sites. Although 5G massive MIMO already provides a massive capacity upgrade compared to 4G, this capacity will be used up in the future. This is where 5G small cells will help boost capacity and coverage.

What Is the Role of 5G Small Cells?


5G small cells are expected to play a major role in the enterprise and consumer markets. With more 5G small cells deployed on their private networks in enterprises, machines and devices can deliver high connectivity and expand productivity significantly, leading, in turn, to high growth in revenue. According to ABI Research, the enterprise market is expected to account for a huge share of small cells deployed in the next 5 years, making up to 73% of the total installed base by 2027. In the consumer market, most network operators are still focused on deploying macro networks, so 5G small cells will be used to complement macro networks in popular locations that are not covered by macro sites, such as shopping malls, stadiums, and stations. Small cell deployment will have a role to play, but it is not expected to see significant growth in the next 2 to 3 years.

The level of densification in 5G is higher than in 4G, which pushes small cell vendors to incorporate several features to facilitate small cell deployments. Network densification can be time-consuming, and 5G small cells need to be smaller and lighter to enable fast installation. Also, when installed on street furniture, such as lampposts, they are expected to have minimal visual impact. Equipment vendors offer different styles for their 5G small cell solutions to help address this. For example, ZTE’s iMacro solution is compact (16.8L/16KG) and comes with a vertical and horizontal design that can blend in with the surrounding environment perfectly. In addition to its technical innovation, iMacro enables flexible and rapid network deployment. It can be connected to external devices by using a single power cable and optical fiber that is connected to the Baseband Unit (BBU), and several iMacro small cell base stations can be connected to one remote BBU, enabling significant deployment costs reduction. Vendors like Nokia also offer designs to support user adoption; the Nokia Smart Node has an extendable base and clip-on 5G module. This design aims to encourage consumers and enterprises to switch to 5G whenever they need it, requiring no replacement of any existing hardware. Moreover, many 5G small cell solutions offer plug-and-play support for self-installation, leading to higher operational efficiency.

When compared with a Distributed Antenna System (DAS), small cells offer more capacity, so they are more cost-effective. As 5G evolves to 5G Advanced, this offers a network capacity upgrade, but 5G small cells can still play a role in extending network coverage.

How to Boost 5G Small Cell Deployments?


Open Radio Access Network (RAN) is expected to bring enhancements to 5G small cells; it is also expected to drive down the cost of 5G small cells. Currently, an Open RAN small cell indoor solution is available on the market; for example, AirVelocity 2700 from Airspan supports O-RAN split 7.2x for deployment flexibility in an open interface architecture, enabling substantial cost saving. Open RAN small cells for many vendors are still in development and operators should be more engaged in running testing with vendors to speed up commercialization. Mass Open RAN small cells are expected after 2025.

As 5G small cells will be deployed in greater quantity, it is critical that operators are able to maximize their Return on Investment (ROI). Ericsson now has an indoor planning tool that helps generate coverage map reports (coverage, signal strength, etc.), traffic growth analysis, deployment reports with inputs, such as floor plan, ceiling height, wall materials, etc., resulting in cost and time reductions. Other vendors should try to develop similar tools to help their customers and this may encourage more 5G small cell installations. Network operators could also design their own intelligent tools based on Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) for the entire small cell network design to identify the optimal location to place the small cells and maximize their ROI.



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