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Small Cell Networks & Deployments – What Does the Future Hold?

The Proliferation of Small Cell Networks


When it comes to the internet, we simply can’t get enough of it.

At this very moment, there are likely a dozen or so devices in your vicinity that depend on the internet to function. Whether it’s a smartphone, a tablet or laptop, a smartwatch, or even a smart appliance like a refrigerator—the internet has become so tightly integrated into our lives, that, without it, our ability to do practically anything becomes severely hindered.

But the internet has one big problem: as more and more internet-ready devices hit the market, there simply isn’t enough internet to go around.

You may be asking, “why not improve the infrastructure then?” which is a great question, because as it turns out, internet service providers are improving the infrastructure, and they’re doing so with small cell networks.

What is a Small Cell?


Small Cell DeploymentWe’ve already covered what small cells are in a previous article, but to give you a quick re-cap, a small cell is simply a small antenna connected to network backhaul (typically fiber) that broadcasts a cellular signal to a targeted area to provide internet connectivity.

This signal is low powered, enabling mobile devices to achieve better battery life, and this signal can be arranged in an array to “densify” available bandwidth in the area.

This densification is vital in expanding cellular networks, as it is often the case that where there is a need for additional bandwidth there is also a shortage of suitable locations for network-boosting antennas.

In these types of scenarios, small cell solutions, such as a femtocell networks, are more than capable of providing better internet connectivity for mobile users.

What about Traditional Cell Towers?


While traditional cellular towers are adept at providing broad cellular coverage for low traffic areas (e.g., rural environments), small cells are much better equipped to serve densely populated, high-traffic areas.

As a matter of fact, when we compare small cell networks to traditional cell towers, it turns out that a well-designed, interconnected network of several small cells is substantially more efficient at “blanketing” a targeted area with usable, high-speed bandwidth—even in cases where land availability isn’t an issue.

While this dynamic may seem counter-intuitive, especially given the size and reach of a traditional cell tower, expanding a cellular network with traditional cell towers is expensive, requires a ton of space, and hits the point of diminishing returns much quicker than small cells.

Unlike traditional cell towers, a small cell deployment can be arranged in vast arrays over any given area (provided there’s enough backhaul), creating a greater number of access points for the mobile user to connect to the internet, making the network faster and more reliable overall, but especially over a larger coverage area.

Small Cell Deployment Scenarios


The number of ways in which small cells can be implemented in our world is growing every day: from shopping malls to outdoor stadiums, the scenarios in which small cells can be deployed are nearly limitless.

However, there are small cell deployment challenges to take into consideration: for a small cell antenna to be deployed, there needs to be suitable backhaul in the area. This backhaul is almost always composed of a network of fiber optic cables, and it is this network that provides the small cell antennas their signal.

If the desired location does not have the appropriate backhaul, then the backhaul will have to be constructed. Although this process can be expensive and time-consuming, it is still preferable over the construction of a traditional cell tower, and because internet service providers don’t want to lose out on new customers, fiber optic networks are being routed and installed in numerous areas across the globe at an ever-increasing rate.

In fact, as of February 2016, a total of over 14 million small cells have been deployed worldwide, a number that will grow exponentially over the coming years.

Why have small cell deployments increased so dramatically? Besides keeping up with demand from mobile customers, one of the biggest reasons why small cell deployment is accelerating is the need for new, high-speed 5G networks.

5G Networks are Coming


In 2007, the tech industry hailed the arrival of the first iPhone as the beginning of a new era in consumer electronics, and for the most part, they were right.

Over the last 10 years, the iPhone has become the world’s most ubiquitous consumer electronic device, selling close to 1 billion devices worldwide while at the same time fostering the development of powerful, easy to use “apps” like Instagram, Snapchat, and Airbnb.

Small Cell - 5G
However, what many forget is that when the iPhone was released the cellular networks were slow and unreliable. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until 4G networks became available in 2010 that the smartphone platform began to evolve into the force of nature that it is today.

The additional bandwidth provided by 4G cellular networks have allowed consumers to download and interact with apps at greater scale, making content sharing easier than ever before. Without our 4G networks, streaming music and movies or interacting with social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram would be cumbersome, irritating, and incredibly frustrating.

Ten years later, we are once again on the threshold of a new era in computing, an era dominated by self-driving cars, smart billboards, robotics, and virtual reality. However, just like we saw before, many of these technologies will require substantial amounts of additional bandwidth—bandwidth that current networks simply cannot provide.

This is why small cells are so valuable: small cells give internet service providers a pathway to network densification that is efficient and cost-effective. And, just like we saw with the expansion of 4G networks, 5G will also allow for a wide variety of new internet-based systems to flourish.

Of these systems, the below are some of the more exciting projects currently in development.

Self-Driving Cars


The automobile industry has been going through a series of evolutions as of late: first with the introduction of the high-mpg, low-priced economy car, then with hybrid cars that combine gasoline and lithium-ion batteries, and now with fully electric cars that don’t even use any gasoline at all.

And it’s not just the propulsion systems that are changing rapidly: modern day cars are jam-packed with all sorts of sensors, processors, and other high-tech systems all designed to improve both efficiency and safety for the driver.

However, the final stage in the evolution of the car is poised to change the way we think about transportation entirely. This final stage, of course, is self-driving cars.

Removing human beings from the equation presents an amazing opportunity for society to tackle problems like over-congestion in our streets and unnecessary fatalities caused by collisions.

To implement these new self-driving systems, our current infrastructure will need to change drastically, starting with our networks and their available bandwidth.

Self-driving cars rely upon the internet to communicate with passengers, other self-driving cars, IoT devices embedded in signals, and many other elements needed for travel. This means that wherever a self-driving car is operating, the internet needs to be fast, reliable, low-latency, and essentially, fail-proof.

Small cells will thus be essential to the proliferation of self-driving cars, because small cells will virtually be required for the rapid expansion and adoption of ultra-fast 5G networks.

Virtual and Augmented Reality


Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are technologies that you might have heard of recently, as nearly every major technology company is likely pursuing one (or both) of these technologies.

These two technologies open a whole new realm of possibilities for content creation and content consumption, especially on mobile devices where VR and AR empowers users to share virtual stories on their favorite social media platform.

In fact, one of the biggest social networks, Facebook, is pursuing these technologies as a new avenue of content distribution. However, while the prospect of viewing VR and AR content on your mobile device is exciting, VR and AR content is substantially more demanding on the network because of the digital size of the content.

With 5G and small cell implementations, however, the network will have the bandwidth and speed required to support this shift in content.

Robotics?


As with self-driving cars, robotics is another automated system which will greatly benefit from faster internet connectivity.

Most of today’s robotic systems rely on short-range wireless communication or wired connections to process instructions.

On the other hand, 5G and small cells will enable the development of a whole new breed of robotic systems that can be fully operated and managed from the cloud in real time. This sort of advancement in robotic technology will exponentially increase the number of applications for robotics, which is both a promising and slightly unnerving prospect (depending on how you feel about robots).

Either way, robotic systems, in conjunction with high-speed internet connectivity, will have a dramatic effect on the way the world functions soon.

Smarter Cities


Smart city projects are popping up all around the world, providing residents with a more interconnected experience in their day to day lives.

As you can imagine, by upgrading the cellular connectivity of all the interconnected systems deployed in a smart city, the overall efficiency of the system becomes greater and vastly more powerful.

This will allow for “smart” cities to become even smarter, as everything from automated transportation systems to interactive displays will be able to increase the number of core functions that they provide.

The Future of Small Cells


When we look to the future, the internet will only play an even more influential and important role in all of our lives. Even in its present state, the internet is already our “go-to” for answers, directions, content creation, content distribution, and many other functions that empower us to achieve more in less time.

Small cells will play an integral role in the development of future networks as they present the best opportunity for bandwidth densification that can also be implemented in a wide variety of locations. Additionally, as small cells evolve to become more powerful and more efficient, current small cell systems can be simply swapped out for new units, improving network capabilities even further.

The small cell deployment forecast for the future is as vibrant as ever: unless a more efficient and powerful method of network densification comes to fruition, small cells will continue to be the go-to method for network expanding efforts across the industry.