Small Cells: Small, but Valuable Addition to 4G LTE Network

Adding capacity to high traffic areas.

By on May 21, 2013

There’s been lots of buzz in the wireless world about small cells – short range mobile cell sites used to complement larger macro cells, or cell towers. With mobile data traffic expected to grow 18-fold between 2011 and 2016 according to Cisco, small cells enable mobile network operators to strategically add capacity to high traffic areas and extend coverage to hard-to-reach locations and indoor sites. 

As part of an overall 4G LTE network, they help deliver the quality, reliability, footprint and capacity to accommodate new applications, the burgeoning use of video and the popularity of smartphones and tablets with larger screens and sharper images. 

Verizon Wireless will begin deploying small cells into its 4G LTE network during the second half of 2013, working with network vendors including Alcatel-Lucent. For Verizon, small cells are part of a balanced approach to network capacity. Its 4G LTE network already covers more than 95 percent of the company’s 3G network footprint and the company announced Monday the launch of six new markets in May, bringing its high-speed mobile broadband service to a total of 497 U.S. markets. Verizon will also increase network capacity by adding macro cell sites and using the AWS (Advance Wireless Services) spectrum acquired in 2012.

Small cells will be used to primarily enhance localized capacity and coverage, such as in a business district or shopping mall where there is concentrated traffic. They will also complement Distributed Antenna Systems that allow for the availability of robust 4G LTE coverage to customers in challenging coverage areas, like basements of public buildings or large stadiums.   

About the size of a mini refrigerator, small cells are generally deployed on lamp posts, utility poles and building walls. Like macro cells, they must be connected to the core wireless network and may pose operational challenges ranging from site acquisition and leasing to regulation and permitting by local authorities. While not a panacea, they are a valuable addition to a 4G LTE network, part of a balanced network strategy.