IDTechEx has recently released “5G Small Cells 2021-2031: Technologies, Markets, Forecast,” a market research and business intelligence report exploring the key technical and industry factors that are shaping the fast-growing small cell market. The report forecasts that the overall number of 5G small cells will reach 45 million by 2031.
One of the challenges of mmWave (24–48 GHz) based 5G is signal attenuation (Another is the requirement for line of sight communications). That results in the signal propagation distance being much shorter compared to use of other frequencies in cellular networks such as 3G and 4G. Small cells are proposed to address this big challenge.
Deploying many small cells will also improve aggregate 5G bandwidth in dense urban area through frequency re-use. Creating an ultra-dense cellular network by deploying more small cells plays a key role in 5G as it allows it to complement the macro cell network and therefore boosts data capacity.
Small cells can be categorized into three types: femtocells, picocells, and microcells, depending on their output power. Because of their smaller size compared to macro base stations, the material choices and the overall technology trend will be different from their macro infrastructure counterparts.
As of mid-2021, the majority of the 5G commercial rollouts are still focused on enhanced mobile broadband. 5G network operators have mostly installed 5G macro base stations to provide networks with high capacity for consumers using mobile devices. However, the new use cases such as industrial IoT 4.0, cellular vehicle to everything (C-V2X), new entertainment experiences, and smart cities, are where the real innovations are occurring and the huge market potential lies. 5G small cells will play an essential role in supporting those industries to become fully digitalized and the potential realized.
IDTechEx’s analysis considers how the following variables evolve during the forecast period: the development and adoption rate of sub-6 GHz and mmWave in the world’s five regions, the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) for broadband and critical applications, 5G rollout potentials for enterprises, urban, and rural & remote purposes, and the utilization rate of different types of small cells for each scenario.
- 5G small cells vendor landscape analysis
- Supply chain and technology analysis on Radiofrequency (RF) components such as power amplifier and filters for 5G small cells
- Choices of semiconductors for 5G small cells
- Antenna-integrated package (AiP) solutions
- EMI shielding
- Thermal management for 5G small cells
The report offers insights into the global 5G small cells market for:
- Companies that supply materials and components for 5G small cells
- Companies that develop 5G small cells
- Companies that invest in the 5G infrastructures
- Companies that plan to step into 5G small cell business
- Companies that develop digital solutions for industries
Separately, the Small Cell Forum’s market forecast is claimed to be the industry’s most comprehensive analysis of small cell deployments globally from now until 2026. The most important input to the forecast is a survey of the deployers of small cells, including 84 MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) and 33 other service providers such as private network operators and neutral hosts.
Key findings from the 2021 report include:
- There is a rising number of industrial applications that require full 5G capabilities such as high availability, and these will accelerate adoption of 5G small cells, with a CAGR of 77% in 2019-2026.
- Access to a wider variety of spectrum, with more flexible licensing, will be the most important enabler of enterprise small cell roll-out in the early 2020s. Deployments in shared spectrum will overtake those in licensed bands in 2025.
- As small cells need to address increasingly diverse requirements from different industries and use cases, flexible, cloud-based architectures will become essential. Two-thirds of deployers expect to adopt small cell vRAN by 2025.
- One driver of vRAN expansion will be open small cell architectures. These will account for 77% of new deployments in 2026. There will be strong support for SCF’s Split 6 in the enterprise and industrial environments, where it will adopted by 58% of deployers by 2024.
- The trend for rising diversity of small cell deployers and business models will intensify as enterprise demand grows, and by 2026, over three-quarters of enterprise small cells will be deployed and operated by private network operators or neutral hosts.
The Small Cell Forum (SCF) today published its analysis of the burgeoning market for small cell-based private networks, outlining market drivers, use cases and recommendations for LTE-based networks, and examining their evolution to 5G. The research shares insights gained by leading deployers of how different public and private sector organisations are benefitting from robust cellular connectivity, customised to their specific applications.
SCF235 Private Cellular Networks with Small Cells is available for download from the SCF website.
The comprehensive paper includes:
- SCF’s market analysis which reveals that, by 2025, the largest adopter of private networks will be local government, including networks to support public safety and smart cities
- A study of new business models created by integrators and third-party providers operating in this space that can work in partnership with MNOs – for instance, by leasing their spectrum or by enabling MNOs to provide services based on a shared network
- Data showing that when deploying private LTE today, small cells have significant cost advantages
- A discussion of the critical need for different spectrum and deployment methods being adopted around the world, such as CBRS in the United States
- Examination of vEPCs supporting RAN-agnostic networks, and the role of edge computing in small cell-based private networks
Private networks are custom designed for the specific needs of an organisation such as an enterprise or local government. They can provide higher quality mobile connectivity than Wi-Fi, and have a more extensive ecosystem of technology suppliers, system integrators and service providers than proprietary solutions. Cellular devices also have the capability to roam seamlessly between private and public global mobile networks.
With LTE technology, new types of spectrum and the emergence of a new breed of service providers, commercial conditions are ripe for enterprises and government to leverage small cell-based private networks for their business-critical and mission-critical connectivity needs. The paper focuses on understanding these early adopters and how they are using private networks to better achieve their organisation goals.
The research was made possible by an extended collaboration of leading private network providers, brought together by Small Cell Forum, including; AT&T, CommScope, Corning, Crown Castle, Ericsson, ExteNet Systems and Reliance Jio.
Keyur Brahmbhatt, lead author and Senior Product Manager at ExteNet Systems, said: “Private LTE networking technology is a significant opportunity for the telco sector that can be deployed today with existing technology, rather than needing to wait for 5G. It has already enabled new business models, tailored service offerings and access to new or difficult to reach verticals, and allows organisations to integrate diverse sensors, machines, people, vehicles and more across a wide range of applications and usage scenarios.”
Dr. Prabhakar Chitrapu, Chair of Small Cell Forum, said: “This paper represents a comprehensive body of work highlighting the clear benefits Small Cells provide in deploying private cellular networks of all types, as well as providing real-world case studies of successful systems. Our future work in this area will focus on how to manage private networks, and the impact 5G will have on private network architectures and technologies. At the heart of this will be collaborations with enterprises to capture detailed requirements specific to key sectors that will benefit most.”
SCF aims to help enterprise, industry and government understand the potential benefits of private networks to support their digital connectivity needs, while helping private network service providers better understand the benefits which are most valued by the different types of customer. The paper identifies barriers to the growth of private networks and recommends industry actions to address them.
About Small Cell Forum:
Small Cell Forum develops the technical and commercial enablers to accelerate small cell adoption and drive wide-scale densification.
Broad roll-out of small cells will make high-grade mobile connectivity accessible and affordable for industries, enterprises and for rural and urban communities. That, in turn, will drive new business opportunities for a widening ecosystem of service providers.
Those service providers are central to our work program. Our operator members establish the requirements that drive the activities and outputs of our technical groups.
We have driven the standardization of key elements of small cell technology including Iuh, FAPI, nFAPI, SON, services APIs, TR-069 evolution and the enhancement of the X2 interface. These specifications enable an open, multi-vendor platform and lower barriers to densification for all stakeholders.
Today SCF members are driving solutions that include:
- 5G Components, Products, Networks
- Dis-aggregated 5G Small Cells
- Planning, Management and Automation
- 5G regulation & safety
- Neutral Hosts & Multi-operator
- Private and Public Network coexistence
- Edge compute with Small Cell Blueprint
- End-to-end orchestration
The Small Cell Forum Release Program has now established business cases and market drivers for all the main use cases, clarifying market needs and addressing barriers to deployment for residential, enterprise, rural & remote, and urban small cells. It has also established initiatives relating to both public and private (MNO) coordination. The Small Cell Forum Release Program website can be found here: www.scf.io
The Small Cell Forum (SCF) commissioned an in-depth survey from Rethink Technology Research to understand more about their deployment plans and business drivers for a dense HetNet, and the barriers they need to overcome. Over 50 tier 1 and 2 mobile and converged operators responded to this survey, which illuminates operators’ deployment plans for network densification, as well as the barriers they expect to have to overcome.
The results showed that cell densification has begun in today’s LTE networks and will intensify in the 5G era, enabled by profound changes to the architecture and economics of small cells.
The SCF forecasts that between 2015 and 2025, new non-residential small cell deployments will grow at a compound annual rate of 36%, to reach almost 8.5 million, and by 2025 deployments will be 22 times higher than in 2015.
Densification is starting in LTE networks and will intensify in the 5G era, enabled by profound changes to the architecture and economics of small cells.
It is clear from the results of the survey that most mobile network operators (MNOs) are starting to plan for dense HetNets, even if they do not intend to deploy the 5G radio network at scale until well into the 2020s. The biggest uptick in new deployments of small cells will be seen in the 2018-2020 period, with a 50% increase, with a second sharp increase in 2023-2024 as 5G densification gets into full swing.
This indicates that many operators are densifying their networks long before they upgrade to 5G – the start of 5G small cell deployment will come in 2020, with 68% of respondents planning to embark on this upgrade before the end of 2022 and the rest later than that. While a smooth migration path to 5G will be important, most MNOs’ main concerns are with immediate issues of deployment in 4G.
Against that context, the following is a summary of some of the key findings of the survey:
• Only 17% of respondents have no plans for large-scale densification. By
contrast, by 2020, 40% of operators expect to deploy between 100 and 350
small cells per square kilometer in the areas they densify (led by transport
hubs, urban downtown regions and business parks).
• When it comes to 5G, 69% of operators planning 5G deployment before 2023
expect to start small cell deployment in tandem with the macro, or ahead of
it. In the first 2-3 years of deploying 5G New Radio, 58% expect to focus
primarily on small cells, 37% mainly in order to densify the network for
enhanced mobile broadband, and 21% mainly to enable new use cases.
• However, densification will happen well in advance of 5G. When asked to
rank their critical requirements for small cells, operators prioritized those
which relate to the here-and-now, not just 5G futures. Low total cost of
ownership (TCO), multivendor interoperability, ease of deployment and good
macro network interworking were the most commonly cited as top three
• It is vital for the industry to support the key requirements as soon as
possible, since the survey shows that many operators would be keen to
accelerate their deployment timeline if their concerns were addressed. For
instance, 19% would ideally like to start at-scale deployment within one year,
but only 7% believe that will be practical and affordable.
• The key factors which would enable them to bring their deadlines forward
would be new sources of affordable fiber for backhaul and fronthaul (53%
cited this), followed by lower overall TCO (50%) and easier access to sites
• The commercial drivers which are creating this new urgency are becoming
more diverse and business-critical. Supporting improved quality of experience
(QoE) – the main determinant of customer satisfaction – through improved
and targeted capacity emerged as the most important driver (placed in the
top three by 40%). This was followed by lower total cost of ownership (TCO)
for the mobile network (38%), and the ability to deploy new services and
revenue streams based on small cells (36%).
• There is increasing diversity of business cases. On top of mobile broadband,
40% plan to introduce new enterprise services enabled by small cells before
2020 – and two-thirds after that – while for IoT services, the figures are 29%
• Density will allow MNOs to address new enterprise requirements. The areas
where the largest number see a business case for density would be transport
hubs, business parks and corporate buildings or campuses, while significant
opportunities are also seen in medium-sized enterprises and the hospitality
and property development sectors.
• To support business case diversity, there is a need for architectural diversity
too. As well as standalone access points, by the end of 2019, 50% also
expect to have deployed distributed radio systems and 33% clusters of small
cells managed by a virtualized controller.
• Other architectural changes are being actively adopted to make densification
easier and support additional use cases. For instance, by the end of 2019,
75% of operators will have implemented small cell SON (self-optimizing
networks), while 25% will have started to deploy end-to-end orchestration of
physical and virtual cells.
• To improve the small cell business case further, especially in the enterprise,
79% expect to support edge computing integrated with small cells, by the
end of 2022. Enterprise edge applications are seen as the leading driver
(40% placed it in their top three).
• To boost capacity, there is a rising need to tap into new sources of spectrum.
By 2022, 66% expect to be using LTE in unlicensed spectrum, and 45% plan
to have deployed small cells in spectrum above 20 GHz.
You can download the entire survey (after filling out a form) here.