Beware the 5G small cells

Peter Jarich, Head of GSMA Intelligence

5G and small cells. It’s hard to disentangle the two. Which makes it all the more important to recognize that they’re distinct.

To be fair, the connection between low-power, limited coverage RAN assets and the next generation of wireless is hard to deny.  The limited propagation of high-band 5G spectrum makes small cells a natural fit. And where 5G is about added capacity, then capacity density is part of the 5G story. Cue the small cells. And because the sheer magnitude small cells implied by 5G will require regulatory reform in some markets, we’ve seen plenty of siting-related regulations labelled as 5G-centric.  To be fair, there’s a marketing angle here; if you want to get your new regulation passed, what better way than to tie it to something high-profile like 5G?

But there’s a risk here. A big one. Equating small cells with 5G ignores the value of 4G in the here and now.

While 5G may be the “next big thing,” to call it nascent feels like an exaggeration. Meanwhile, 4G might be much more mature, but is still ramping up in many markets and continues to capture lots of operator CapEx. By all accounts, 4G will continue to do much of the mobile broadband heavy lifting through the medium-term. Our own figures see it growing from 41% of connections in 2018 to more than 56% in 2025. It’s going to be around for a while. Which means we’ll need new 4G R&D investments and the new 4G small cell innovations that follow.

Once upon a time, I recall vendors talking up their 3G small cells and ignoring 4G because it was still too far away. That ship has sailed. But ignoring 4G today because 5G is coming soon won’t benefit anyone.

SCF is currently working on a white paper that examines the critical role of LTE and LTE evolution in the business case for network densification and service development. If you or your organization would like to find out more about this project, please contact SCF.