Small Cell Deployment: The History and Evolution
A Look into How Far Small Cell Deployment Has Come
Lots of mobile companies are starting to talk about Small Cell Technology and how they plan to incorporate and deploy it to their consumers – but to many of us, it’s still just a buzz phrase. So, let’s take a closer look at the history and evolution of small cell deployment to see how far this technology has come, where we are today and what tomorrow may hold.
Up until recently, most wireless infrastructures have been deployed on what are called macro cells. Macrocells are those large cell towers you see as you drive down the highway, or on top of large buildings. Small cells are much smaller, about the size of a small suitcase, and can be deployed both indoors, such as shopping malls, coffee shops, hospitals, and outdoors in urban areas and city streets, on lamp posts, utility poles, etc. They are lower power cells that are installed a few blocks apart as opposed to miles apart.
There are different types of small cells, and they are categorized by the range they provide:
- Femtocell: these have the smallest range, around 10 meters, and are normally used in homes and small businesses.
- Picocell: these cover small areas such as hotels, stadiums or even airplanes.
- Microcells: also covers a defined area like a shopping center or transport hub, but with a greater range than a picocell, typically up to several hundred meters.
The first femtocells were deployed in the US in 2007. The UK and Europe were next in 2009. The evolution happened quickly from there. According to Small Cell Forum (SCF), 18 million small cells had been deployed globally by the end of 2016. While small cell is definitely not a new concept, it has gained a lot more traction in recent years.
With this rapid evolution of small cell deployments, it’s obvious that the regulations that deal with cell sites need to evolve also, as existing regulations were developed with macro networks, and large cell towers, in mind. So, earlier this year in March, the FCC moved to streamline federal regulations by approving an order in an aptly named proceeding: “Accelerating Wireless Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment.”
This order helps to address regulatory barriers that could slow down the deployment of small cells. Since up till now small cell deployments have been subject to the same regulatory obstacles as large cell towers. This often adds significant costs and delays to small cell deployment. Under the new order however, equipment meeting certain criteria in size and mounting height are no longer subject to federal environmental or historic preservation review. These rules make sense for macro cell sites, but do not for small cells which are often smaller than three cubic feet. These new rules will definitely go a long way in aiding the evolution of small cell deployments.
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