5G: Mission impossible without small cells

18 November 2014 | Bernhard Pussel

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Bernhard Pussel

Blog Author | Colt Technology Services; Director of Operator Channel


The volume of monthly mobile data traffic is set to exceed 15 exabytes globally by 2018, thanks to a surge in high-bandwidth content such as video calling and music streaming. The growth in bandwidth demand can also be attributed to other types of connected “things” that will require their share of networks too.

The volume of monthly mobile data traffic is set to exceed 15 exabytes globally by 2018, thanks to a surge in high-bandwidth content such as video calling and music streaming. The growth in bandwidth demand can also be attributed to other types of connected “things” that will require their share of networks too.

Today’s badly congested 3G and 4G networks rely on rooftop base stations. Many mobile network operators (MNO) have been scrambling to acquire enough rooftop space for LTE, but still 4G networks don’t often meet their bandwidth-hungry customers’ expectations, especially in dense urban areas such as pedestrian zones. While filling rooftops with base stations might have been a good solution for 3G, in the LTE era the cells are becoming smaller, and MNOs need ten times as many base stations to cover the same footprint of a city.

As existing 3G and 4G networks struggle to cope with the influx in data traffic, MNOs are looking at solutions to offload traffic from their current base station networks. Small cells that are connected to city-wide superfast fibre networks will be the most economic and scalable way of ensuring that the needs of mobile users for more and more bandwidth are met in the future. They will also be an enabler for the billions of connections in the IoT era. That is why the number of small cell networks deployed across Europe is going to increase dramatically over the next few years.

To gear themselves up for 5G, eliminate the well-known capacity problems with rooftop base stations and stay competitive, more and more European MNOs are realising that only small cells connected to fibre can bring mobile users the great user experience they expect – down at street level where it really matters. When connected to fibre networks, these small cells can collectively deliver up to Gigabytes per second of capacity, making entire cities 5G ready.

To be able to roll out faster than their rivals, many MNOs are now starting to buy space on lampposts, billboards, bus stops or even public toilets, and equip them with small cells.

Still in recovery from the substantial investment needed for 4G, some cost-conscious MNOs might be tempted to tighten the purse strings with small cells to protect their margins. Yet they really don’t have a choice but to invest. If they don’t, they will lose customers. It’s as simple as that.

Other small cell-ready players aren’t the only competitive threat for MNOs. Street furniture providers might eat into their profits too. Through city-wide Wifi schemes, street furniture companies are eliminating completely the need for mobile users to use their operator for data in some cases.

In any way you look at it, 5G will only materialise with small cells connected to existing superfast fibre networks. And all European MNOs’ competitiveness – and survival – will rely on 5G.