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Tech Explained: What Are Small Cells?

April 9, 2015 - Written By Alexander Maxham

We’re kickstarting a new feature here at Android Headlines today. It’s all about new technology. Who doesn’t love some new technology? What we’re doing here is taking new technology and breaking it down for you. Letting you know exactly what it is, in layman’s terms, as well as how it’ll affect you. Whether that’s your next smartphone, your carrier coverage, or something totally different. We’re kicking things off with ‘small cells’.

You’ve probably heard about small cells before, as we have written a few articles about them. Verizon is the main one deploying them right now. In basic terms, small cells are a small tower that a carrier can place on a telephone pole or light pole. And actually, here in Detroit, they have quite a few placed in high-traffic areas. There’s one in Campus Martius park and another along the riverfront. A small cell can give you coverage for about 1,000 feet. So it won’t cover as much as area as a typical cell site, seeing as it is a very small version of that cell site, I wouldn’t expect it to. It does handle both Voice and 4G LTE, although that might change to just 4G LTE in the near future. Especially as carriers are pushing VoLTE.

What are some of the benefits of small cells? Well for a customer, it means that you’ll get better coverage as well as faster speeds in high-trafficked areas. Like stadiums, or malls, even downtown areas. I’m sure many of you have noticed how in bigger cities, AT&T and Verizon (especially) have seen their data speeds decrease dramatically lately. Small cells help out with that, and are much cheaper, and cost effective then putting up a new tower. They are also almost invisible. From the carrier’s standpoint, it increases bandwidth, so you can add more and more people to your network and still have pretty decent speeds. About 6 months ago, speeds from Verizon in Downtown Detroit weren’t bad, but they weren’t good either. I was getting around 8-15Mbps depending on the time of day. Not terrible, but now with small cells in place, throughout the downtown area, speeds are much, much faster. A few weeks ago, I pulled down about 50Mbps. And this was on Woodward between Campus Martius and Hart Plaza – for those that know their way around downtown Detroit. So it’s definitely a big help.

Currently, Verizon is the only one deploying them. And it’s not just here in Detroit. Verizon has also said they will be deploying them in San Francisco and other cities as well. AT&T had originally planned on putting out about 40,000 small cell sites by the end of this year, but have since decided against that. Which is due to their acquisition of Leap Wireless last year, which makes their network more dense. Once they integrate all the spectrum. T-Mobile has said that they have no immediate plans for small cells, as their CTO  Neville Ray, stated “we’re already dense”. Which is true. Sprint has stated they will be deploying and utilizing small cells, but no immediate plans for rollout. As they are still working on rolling out LTE and their Spark networks.

So in short, small cells will give you better coverage, and faster speeds in crowded areas. Think of them like signal boosters, but for your wireless carrier.