Editor’s Corner—Small cells can actually be quite big

Linda Hardesty editor's corner

I’ve been covering communications networks for a couple decades, but I’ve only recently been focusing specifically on wireless networks since I joined the FierceTelecom group. As part of my self-education, I attended a session at this week’s CCA Mobile Carriers Show in Denver, entitled “Innovative Small Cell Solutions.”

The first thing the panelists discussed was the definition of a “small cell.” You would think an audience of wireless professionals would already know the definition. But apparently they don’t, because the FCC only recently, in September 2018, published a new rule aimed at speeding deployment of small cells and 5G. And within its rule, the FCC defined what it calls “small wireless facilities.”

The FCC’s rule says these small wireless facilities are defined as those that are mounted on structures 50 feet or less in height, including their antennas, with a 10% leeway in certain situations. In addition, each antenna associated with the deployment is no more than three cubic feet in volume; and all other wireless equipment associated with the structure is no more than 28 cubic feet in volume.

Melissa Mullarkey, VP of government relations at Mobilitie, said on the CCA panel that the company is working to “educate communities on what small cells are.” Mobilitie is a provider of wireless real estate solutions. Mullarkey added that with a height at 50 feet and an allowance for 28 cubic feet of volume, “that’s a lot of room for adding a lot of equipment to the pole.” 

RELATED: FCC approves new rules aimed at speeding deployment of small cells

Personally, I’m grateful to the FCC for providing a precise definition of a small cell because for my first couple of months covering wireless, I’ve had to contend with words like “mini cells,” "micro cells" and “mini-macros,” the latter of which seems like a contradiction in terms. Now, at least we know that a small cell is 50 feet tall or less.

At Mobile World Congress earlier this year, I did see some small cells for mmWave that were actually small. These devices could be mounted on something like a light post and were unobtrusive.

Beyond the height and volume definitions provided by the FCC, the panelists at the CCA show said small cells differ from macro calls primarily in power and coverage requirements. “Small cells fulfill coverage gaps and capacity gaps,” said Manish Idnani, manager of sales engineering at Mavenir.

Small cell controversy

There has been a fair amount of uproar and gnashing of teeth in some jurisdictions that aren’t happy with the FCC’s new rule regarding small cells. One of the concerns of these cities and municipalities relates to aesthetics. They’re concerned new small cells will be unsightly.

RELATED: Operators face local opposition to 5G small cell deployments

One solution to the aesthetics problem might be to co-locate small cells with utility infrastructure. Koustuv Ghoshal, managing director for Ericsson’s energy-utilities practice, said “We’re seeing potential collaboration between telecoms and utilities. The largest amount of vertical assets are held by utilities. There is incredible opportunity for these two rather slow moving vehicles to come together.”

Mullarkey pointed out that electricity is an expensive requirement of wireless equipment such as small cells. Siting this equipment near electric utility infrastructure could make a lot of sense in that regard as well. “There is a ton of work that needs to be done with electric utilities to deploy these sites effectively,” she said.