In addition to distributed antenna systems and Wi-Fi networks, small cells for 5G networks are increasingly enabling richer radio coverage, thus becoming more common in consumer and enterprise markets. A study from ABI Research has found they are now vital in enabling mobile network operators to make good on their promises to subscribers that 5G will provide higher capacity, faster speed, higher energy efficiency, lower RAN latency, and create massive connectivity.
Noting that the technology will go towards mitigating against the cost of skyrocketing mobile data traffic demands, ABI Research’s 5G small cells application analysis report predicted that worldwide 5G mobile data traffic will reach 1676 Exabytes in 2026, a compound annual growth rate of 63%. This fast-growing increase in data traffic is, said the analyst, forcing mobile network operators to upgrade their network capacity.
ABI believes that with a limited number of new macro cell sites available and a limited number of 5G spectrums, the most practical approach is the dense deployment of 5G small cells, albeit at a high cost as well. It adds that currently, Massive MIMO (mMIMO) macro cells have fulfilled 5G capacity demands, but these may not be adequate, making small cells more critical.
By 2027, there will be 13 million outdoor 5G small cell deployments, and they will overtake 4G in 2028.
“5G small cells complement macro cells, boosting network capacity and extending coverage in dense areas where signals are weak or unavailable,“ said Fei Liu, 5G and mobile network infrastructure industry analyst at ABI Research. “They also allow network operators to derive more value from their existing spectrums by exploiting them more efficiently.
“Compared with previous-generation small cells, 5G small cells face more challenges in design and performance. 5G small cells need to be smaller and lighter while supporting larger bandwidths such as 100MHz and 200MHz. With 5G, there is a wider range of deployment scenarios, forcing vendors to provide comprehensive solutions to support every need.”
The analyst also focused on the differences in small cell deployment in consumer and enterprise use cases. It noted that in the former scenario, mobile network operators in most countries focus on macro cell deployment for 5G.
The actual data traffic growth rate determines the timing and extent of the network capacity challenge. Mass 5G small cell deployments will occur at around 2025, when network capacity on the C-band should run out without additional spectrum or small cell densification. By contrast, enterprises and industry verticals are already deploying 5G small cells for their private networks.
“5G small cells make use of the backhaul established for macro cells, so mobile network operators should start deploying 5G small cells at locations with backhaul already established,” said Liu. “5G small cells can coexist with macro cells, and self-organising networks help minimise risks from interferences between cells. Alternatively, mobile network operators should deploy different frequency bands on small and macro cells.”