It’s likely that you’ve been deep in an office building, residential tower, or hotel and discovered that you have little to no cell phone service. As a result, you probably ran towards the window, reaching out in hopes of grabbing one or two extra bars of service to make a phone call, send one more text message, or (lets be honest) watch one more video. At times it seems like wherever we are in a building always ends up being in a dead zone. Due to the way that building materials block the waves needed for cellular communication, there’s little chance that this will change in the near future, leaving you with very limited bandwidth—unless the building owner utilizes small cell technology.
Smart cells are small, fiber-connected antennas that are traditionally affixed to existing public infrastructure, like city street lights and network utility towers, and work by increasing wireless coverage and capacity. These cells are a critical part of smart city technology, as they are able to handle high-density data while providing internet speeds that are up to 50 times faster than existing 4G LTE networks, making them also the perfect choice for the newly rolled out 5G networks.
Back when offices had dedicated desks we relied on ethernet telecoms, but now with the more transient nature of workers in a building, occupiers are thinking about the increase of data transfers through individual mobile phones. As more cellular devices that require more high-speed connectivity come online in a building, the need for small cells will continue to increase. It’s estimated that in the next three years, each smartphone in North America will use 45 GB of data per month. To support this consumption and the expansion of 5G networks, we will need to install nearly one million new small cells in the next three years.
When understanding the importance of small cells, the need for additional data can be broken down into two concepts: coverage vs capacity. Coverage is the area that a type of communication infrastructure spans or how far a signal can reach. In dense areas with tall buildings, coverage can lessen and cause signals to drop. Capacity describes having coverage, but for a variety of reasons, the data is not transmitted as quickly as expected.
Issues arise due to the like wireless density or the ability of the existing towers in the coverage area to be able to transmit enough data to supply the requests. The more data that people use in a network, the slower everyone’s connections become. The solution is to add more data infrastructure, and for indoor spaces, that means small cells. A small cell system would consist of a network of small powered antennas and nodes that can give as much coverage and capacity as a tower with a few technology caveats. The signals that small cells emit communicate wirelessly through radio waves and then send signals to the internet and phone systems. Because they are connected with fiber cables, they are able to process immense amounts of data at lightning-fast speeds.
This has created a new opportunity for building owners and operators, as tenants expect to be “always-on” in an increasingly connected world. Promised strong data coverage coupled with strong data capacity is just another way that landlords can charge a premium per square foot for their building leases. But this is no easy feat as data usage is designed for outdoor use, and signals only weaken as they are forced to pass through facades and interior partition walls. Even more so, more than 90 percent of cell phone calls originate from inside, creating a need for a solution that can support connectivity as users move around and between spaces.
While there’s a range of solutions that have come on to the market in the last decade, many landlords are agreeing that this can be a major differentiator when a tenant is considering a 10-year commercial office lease or when a hotel guest is checking out and debating whether they’ll ever book another night. Solutions for buildings range based on the total square feet due to the need for technology to be flexible to support the infrastructure that a building itself requires. Ideally, the infrastructure for the small cells should be a single backbone that can support multiple commercial cellular networks.
So what does it take to install a small cell on a property? First, building owners will need to obtain a permit to comply with federal, state, and local ordinances that will allow for the installation of the small cells. It’s also important to consider a building’s aesthetics and how to maintain its design integrity when selecting a location to install small cells in a way that will allow them to blend in with the existing structure. Small cells should be located on the exterior of buildings and are most commonly placed around existing antennae and other building infrastructure found in the mechanical areas on roofs. The average small cell is about the size of a pizza box, allowing them to be easily located almost anywhere.
The number of cells per building depends on the density of where it’s located. Crown Castle’s SVP of sales and Chief Commercial Officer, Mike Kavanaugh, recently said in an interview that while some areas, like tier 2 markets, only require 2 to 4 small cells per mile, some more urban cities might need 7 to 12 cells per mile. This number may even continue to grow as more advanced 5G networks come online in the coming years. Not only do the building’s tenants themselves benefit, but it also increases broadband in the general area, with the ability to extend with a radius of about 100 yards or the length of a football field. Most small cells operate on a shared model, meaning that their network is designed so that multiple carriers can use it, creating a highly accessible network.
Building owners themselves are not responsible for the installation but instead can be installed through third-party vendors, such as Crown Castle, Corning, Nokia, and Samsung, who will both provide the technology, identify ideal locations for smart cells, install them, and also assist with maintenance and upkeep. The average cost to install a small cell is between $35,000 and $65,000, depending on the location and the type of cell that is installed.
Small cell coverage is quickly becoming a standard requirement for tenants in high-density areas. As we continue to increase our global connectivity, being online any time and anywhere has become more important than ever. In the not-so-distant future, you may not need to press your phone against the window in hopes of picking up an additional bar of cellphone service because the smart cells in your building may be providing you with the highest data speeds on the market. Dead zones in buildings may soon be a thing of the past, all thanks to small cell technology.