Apr 12, 2018
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The FCC reached a major milestone for the small cell industry and 5G readiness this spring. The commission’s decision aims to streamline small cell deployment process and remove regulatory barriers to the benefit of the millions of users of ever-evolving cellular networks in the United States. As we continue to explore all aspects of 5G technology, this decision is worth noting, and here’s why.
Understanding small cells and their role in 5G
5G is changing the cellular network infrastructure paradigm, and small cells are a key piece of this shift. 4G LTE networks increasingly use small cells as a strategic part of network planning — as opposed to reactively using them just to fill macro network coverage gaps — and this will become growingly necessary as operators continue to densify their 4G LTE networks and prepare for 5G.
While far from a new concept, small cells have seen vastly increased traction and innovation in the past few years. In fact, in many cases, they are significantly smaller, more power efficient and affordable than they were just a couple years ago — they have also become much more attractive and flexible. As the products and technology evolve, it stands to reason that regulation also needs to evolve to enable more widespread deployments of 4G-based small cells and to avoid unnecessary roadblocks for 5G.
5G will require small cell deployments both indoors, such as shopping malls, coffee shops, hospitals, and outdoors in urban areas and city streets, affixed to lamp posts, utility poles, etc. Also, it is worth noting that many regulations surrounding cell-siting were developed with macro networks, or large cell towers, in mind, which are vastly different than today’s small cells, as emphasized by the below images of our small cell product showcases at MWC the past years.
Resolving regulatory barriers: Why the FCC decision matters
On March 22, 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 is an important step to resolve regulatory barriers that could slow down the deployment of small cells. Small cells, which are commonly similar in size to a Wi-Fi router, have been subject to similar regulatory hurdles as large cell towers — this often adds significant costs and delays to deployments of dense 4G networks and could hold up consumers from fully realizing the benefits of advanced 4G technology, and ultimately 5G.
However, under the new order, equipment meeting certain criteria, such as having a size less than three cubic feet and complying with mounting height rules, will no longer be subject to federal environmental or historic preservation review — rules that may make a lot of sense for a large cell towers that can be hundreds of feet tall, but not for small cells which are often smaller than three cubic feet.
What to expect next
As part of next-generation networks, facilitating small cell deployments will support delivery of increased speeds through the so-called millimeter wave spectrum bands, such as 28, 24, and 39 GHz, and provide more access to new spectrum types such as unlicensed and shared spectrum. These bands are all uniquely well-suited to small cells, as they can be placed strategically, in very close proximity to where additional coverage/performance is needed.
I was very happy to see this FCC decision, and I know this sentiment is shared by my many colleagues at Qualcomm and in the industry (See “Small Cell Forum Welcomes FCC Move to Relax Regulations on Cell Siting").
Here at Qualcomm, we have a history of small cell innovation via the Qualcomm FSM Platform, spanning 4G LTE, LTE-U/LAA, 3.5 GHz CBRS, 256QAM, and most recently LTE-IoT.
Our breakthroughs in 5G and small cells are just a part of our larger goal of transforming the way the world connects, computes and communicates. We believe that by working closely with the key players throughout the wireless ecosystem and beyond, we not only allow our customers to compete and innovate, we create new industries, and ultimately expose consumers to the truly amazing benefits of mobile technology.