Small Cells

Small Cells: A key component in the evolution of better mobile connectivity


It may come as no surprise that as more of the UK’s population continues to slowly gravitate towards city living, and as advancements in technology continue to accelerate, more and more devices require connectivity and at higher data capacities too. 

The rate at which consumers and connected businesses require significant data transfer for activities like video conferencing and streaming services is ever-increasing and telecoms infrastructure is trying its best to keep up.

How do small cells work?

Often referred to as ‘small cell networks’ or ‘small cell hotspots’, small cells are low-power, short-range wireless transmission devices designed to cover small geographic areas or indoor spaces where a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) may be deemed unnecessary. 

Small cells work by acting as mini base stations that extend and enhance the coverage and capacity of a mobile network, particularly in dense urban areas, indoor spaces, or regions where the signal from larger base stations (macro cells) is weak or obstructed.

Here’s a simplified version of how small cells work:

Signal transmission

Just like traditional cell towers, small cells send and receive signals to and from mobile devices. However, they cover a much smaller area, ranging from a few hundred feet to a couple of miles, depending on the environment and the type of small cell.

Core network connection

Small cells are connected to the mobile operator’s core network. This connection can be made through various means, such as fibre optic cables or wireless backhaul, allowing data and calls to be routed to and from the internet and other parts of the mobile network.

Environment adaptation

Small cells can dynamically adjust their power and other parameters to optimise performance and minimise interference with other parts of the mobile network. This adaptability is particularly useful in urban settings, where buildings can block or reflect signals.

The difference between small cells and DAS

Small cells and DAS are both technologies used to improve mobile coverage and capacity, but they work in quite different ways and are suited to different situations.

Small cells are like mini base stations that can be dotted around similar to street lamps, each one covering a small area such as a high street or a section of an office building. They’re quite independent, each one connecting back to the core network and managing its little patch of signal. They’re particularly handy in busy urban areas or inside buildings where the main network’s signal struggles to penetrate.

On the other hand, DAS is more like a network of speakers connected to a single sound system. The ‘music’ (or mobile signal, in this case) comes from a central source and is piped out to various antennas spread across a large area like a stadium, shopping centre or an entire office block. These antennas aren’t independent like small cells; they all work together to spread the signal evenly, making sure there are no ‘dead spots’ where the signal drops out.

Therefore small cells are great for targeting specific spots that need a signal boost, while DAS is ideal for providing consistent coverage over larger areas, especially indoors or in complex environments where signals from outside might not reach effectively.

The truth about small cells

Unfortunately, the use of small cells in outdoor spaces hasn’t always been successful, due to them not being connected to fibre, therefore they’ve only been able to deliver a 3G service. 

Small cell hotspots for indoor solutions began in a similar vein – ie 3G femtocells that offered a small amount of offload and benefit indoors. Because of this, small cells became more 4G focused which improved the offering, but on its own it still wasn’t a match for DAS with its guaranteed capacity.

The final evolution taking place with regards to small cells is a technology called NHIB (neutral host in-building). This will fundamentally involve removing the need to incorporate base station equipment as sites can be connected to MNO networks through a data centre fibre link.

Small cells still have their place in mobile connectivity, but often as part of a bigger solution.

An example of DAS & small cell hotspot (hybrid) deployment

Tottenham Hotspur partnered with Shared Access to embark on an audacious mission to bring world class connectivity to Tottenham’s new stadium. 

They designed a hybrid system using DAS and small cell hotspots to cover the pitch area, the offices, inside the stands and around the venue to provide dedicated capacity for fans as they congregate, as well as larger antennae facing out towards the streets to provide coverage and capacity as fans approach the venue.

Given the unique nature of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, hosting events like concerts, boxing and NFL matches, the entire pitch area has dedicated coverage too, which has been a game changer for the venue in terms of a competitive advantage.

Read the full case study »

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