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The Typical Approach to Cellular Networks For years, the major providers of wireless communication, including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, have taken a “macro” approach when it comes to building cellular networks. This means that carriers construct and/or install macrocell sites by placing their equipment on local towers. These macrocell towers (monopoles, self-support towers, guyed towers, water tanks, and roof tops) produce one signal source using high powered radios and antennas that cover a relatively small area (approximately 1-2 miles radius). Macrocell sites have worked well in the past and continue to be a part of the build out of networks, but carriers have run into more and more capacity issues with the ever-increasing demand for people trying to stay connected. Carriers are turning to small cell technology as a solution to these issues.

Wireless companies can always build new towers, install new equipment in more rural areas, or install a tower near a large venue, but it can be quite difficult to provide high capacity coverage in urban settings like downtown areas of large cities. Large cities present difficulties in getting the signal through and around all the larger buildings, or providing a strong enough signal to cover 100,000 people at an event. In addition, the permitting for a new macrocell installation can be frustrating and expensive. Several jurisdictions are now requiring a stealth approach to cell towers. Jurisdictions are also creating limitations to the construction of new tower sites to include: reducing the heights of the towers (causing radio frequency (RF) problems), requiring the installation of expensive and ornate privacy fencing, and requiring the installation of landscaping.

Small Cell Technology

In addition to the typical macro installation, the major carriers are now also taking a “smaller” approach to enhance their networks. They are installing “small cells” to concentrate a signal in high capacity areas or in areas that cannot be reached with traditional installation. Small cells are exactly what the name infers. They are smaller cell installations that can be placed on building walls, above a drop ceilings, or inside a light/utility poles. The definition of small cells is hard to nail down as there are many different types of installations, and depending on who you talk to in the industry, you may get a different answer for each one. Small cell technology ranges from a single node or antenna with small radio equipment on a parking lot light pole to up to hundreds of antennas scattered throughout a large sporting venue like football and baseball stadiums or basketball and hockey arenas. Typically, the antennas are much smaller–2’-4’ for a small cell installation–in comparison to 6’-8’ for a macro installation. In addition, the equipment can be contained in smaller cabinets (outdoors) or in a telecommunications rack (indoors) compared to multiple racks and cabinets of a macro installation. The equipment includes the brains of the system, an AC power feed that is converted to DC power, a fiber optic feed, and a battery and/or generator backup. The power and fiber feed are pulled from an existing source within the building or venue to the new equipment. Then, depending on the design, it is routed throughout the building or venue to the various antennas that are distributed throughout.

Street pole and antenna shroud

Pros to using Small Cells Small cell installation has many advantages. First, small cell installation is typically less expensive than the macro installations since a new 200’-500’ steel tower does not have to be erected. In addition, designers do not have to go through quite as much headache regarding legal fees and convincing the local jurisdiction that a new tower is not going to ruin their town. Because small cells are less visibly abrasive in most cases, the neighbors don’t complain as much. Small cell installations are also more environmentally friendly in the sense that they do not affect the migratory patterns of birds through the area.

Cons to using Small Cells One con to the new installation is that there is some risk for the micro installations to affect or negate the macro signal. Because of this, small cell installations sometimes require a more skilled contractor to install the system correctly. Also, as is expected, the micro cell signal covers a much smaller area.

Final Result Have you seen any of the recent AT&T “Charlie” commercials? As the commercial states–installing small cell technology “means you’ll be able to post from the break room.” In lay man’s terms, that’s exactly what small cell technology will allow you to do. While at work, your favorite band’s concert, or an athletic event, you should still have the same coverage as when you are outside. So, never fear, you will still be able to post that picture of your lunch or what time you brushed your teeth on social media. And, you will never get behind on any of the latest social media news and trends.

How this helps Foresite Group and Our Current Experience Foresite Group currently is working on about 75 new small cell installations and upgrades to existing in-building networks. By being a part of this new technology, we have the exciting opportunity to be on the forefront of the design of the systems. We can be among the leaders to develop the most efficient and cost-effective ways to improve these networks. All signs throughout the industry point to small cells as the answer to the increasing demands for network coverage. We hope to continue to be a part of this leading edge.

About Foresite Group

Foresite Group is a multidisciplinary engineering, planning, and consulting firm providing services to public and private sector clients nationwide. Our team’s collaborative process results in creative products and services that help our clients achieve their goals. Our team takes pride in enhancing and developing the cities and communities where we live, work, and raise our families.


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