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Debate over small cell sizes ignites as 5G deployment ramps up

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Debate over small cell sizes ignites as 5G deployment ramps up

Small cells come in a wide range of sizes, and industry experts are divided over whether this is a good thing.

At the Mobile Carriers Show, a conference focused on regional and rural mobile services, Prakash Desai, head of business development for small cells at Nokia Corp., discussed the wide range of small cell options for network operators and even communities considering small cell deployment. Small cells, or cellular base stations and antennas that are often characterized as being the size of a pizza box or a shoebox, will be central to the deployment of 5G services.

Nokia offers picocells, which offer coverage in medium-to-large indoor spaces such as inside a particular building; microcells, which are frequently used outdoors in city centers or other densely populated areas; and mini-macro base transceiver stations, which offer roughly the same coverage as a macrocell or tower, but work in areas where a full macrocell is impractical or unsightly.

All of these things, according to Desai, are small cells, noting that the definition of the term has "evolved" in recent years.

But this evolution, according to Allan Tantillo, senior national director of development and siting policy for T-Mobile US Inc., is causing confusion among consumers and communities. He believes the industry would be well served by reaching consensus on what equipment is too large to be considered a small cell.

"We have jurisdictions being promised a pizza box and what shows up is a refrigerator," Tantillo said, noting that when he speaks to mayors and state legislators about different small cell types, "They don't really know the difference. All they want is coverage in their area."

Tantillo believes the mobile industry is hurting itself with its lack of clarity around this issue.

"We have companies out there selling these mini-macros as small cells and they're not. They are macro sites. And yes they are a solution [for coverage] but it's not a small cell," he said.

This is indeed a complaint that mayors and local representatives have made before Congress. In 2017, Gary Resnick, mayor of Wilton Manors, Fla., said that many small cells are not in fact small in size and can sometimes include 120-foot towers.

"Thus, the infrastructure to be located in the rights-of-way may not be anything like a pizza box but may be more like a pizza delivery vehicle located adjacent to a 120-foot tower, much bigger than anything else in the rights-of-way," Resnick said in his testimony to Congress.

Tantillo said that when it comes to small cells, the technology is not the problem. The "bigger issue," he said, is how carriers and manufacturers are working with government groups to get access to the necessary properties and rights of way for deployment.

"We screw ourselves when we go out to jurisdictions and we sell them the wrong product or the wrong thing with the wrong definition," he said.

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Additional coverage of the Mobile Carriers Show:

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