Crown Castle is deploying small cells in cities and towns around the country. Understandably, many are asking: What are they? What do they do? And why do we need them? These are important questions, because the answers may very well have an impact on your ability to stay connected to the things that matter most to you. So let’s take a few minutes to answer these questions through the lens of a fictional place we’ll call Anytown, USA.
01 bar introduction

Welcome to Anytown.

In our example, let’s imagine that Anytown is a mostly residential, suburban community of modest size. Near Anytown is a cell tower that provides wireless voice and data coverage to the entire town.

Affixed to this tower are several antennas owned by the wireless carriers that serve Anytown. They broadcast and pick up signals from residents’ devices, send the data it receives to adjacent equipment near the tower and then a wired connection sends the information on to the internet or phone system.

Twenty-five years ago, when this tower was built, it served the residents of Anytown well. People were using cell phones to talk, and later, text with hardly any issues. With the possible exception of a few dead spots and limited coverage areas, Anytown’s tower has reliably provided good, dependable service that kept residents connected.

02 bar the challenge

Today, Anytown’s devices aren’t always connecting.

Anytown has maintained a pretty steady population throughout the years, but today, residents have started to notice that even when their device shows a signal, they aren’t always able to connect.

Early cell phone users in Anytown had few problems connecting to the wireless carriers’ networks. But as more people use more data, some aren’t able to connect.

What happened? Well, for one, people have more capable smartphones and are using significantly more data. In the US, mobile data traffic grew 54% in 2017.* And Anytown is no exception. Residents are streaming music throughout the day, live chatting with their friends, and watching and posting large videos to social media. Many Anytown residents also have multiple connected devices. They have their smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches. Some are even getting connected cars. The city of Anytown also has plans to implement new smart city technologies that will use high-tech sensors and transmitters to control traffic lights, streamline bus schedules, and monitor electric, water, and other utility usage. So why is this causing problems now?

We need to talk about coverage and capacity.

At this point, there are two terms that we need to understand when talking about wireless service: coverage and capacity. While these two terms are related, the causes—and solutions—to each can vary.

Anytown’s tower is capable of covering the entire town. The wireless carriers’ networks are not suffering from coverage constraints.

Coverage

This is the area that a particular type of communications infrastructure covers. In other words, it’s how far the signal reaches. Anytown’s tower is able to send its signal across the entire town. There are a few areas with hills and tall buildings, which can cause the signal to drop in some cases. But Anytown’s coverage hasn’t changed.

 

Capacity

If you’ve ever had full bars on your device, but can’t place a call or load a web page, you have coverage, but not capacity. You aren’t having any issue connecting, but for some reason your data is not getting through.

 

To understand why this happens, we have to introduce one more new term: wireless density. The wireless signals that connect the tower to Anytown residents’ devices are only capable of carrying so much data at once. The more data people use on the network, the slower everyone’s connections become. To solve this problem, we need to find a way to add more wireless density to the networks that serve Anytown.  

The signals to and from the tower can only carry so much data. When too many devices try to connect at the same time, things slow down.
03 bar the solution

A solution to Anytown’s challenges that sets them up for the future.

Given the challenges the town faces, Anytown would be an ideal candidate for a new small cell network. A small cell network consists of a series of small low-powered antennas—sometimes called nodes—that provide coverage and capacity in a similar way to a tower, with a few important distinctions. Small cells are always connected by fiber optic cable, and usually attached to existing infrastructure in the public right of way like utility poles or streetlights. This makes them more discreet, while also bringing them closer to smartphones and other devices—a benefit that will become clear as we go. Similar to a tower though, small cell nodes communicate wirelessly over radio waves, and then send the signals to the internet or phone system. One added benefit of small cells is because they’re connected with fiber they are able to handle massive amounts of data at fast speeds.

Small cells are often attached to existing infrastructure in the public right of way—in this case, a streetlight.

Developing a plan with input from the community.

The people of Anytown have a vested interest in understanding what’s happening in their community and how it affects them. In our scenario, we’ll assume that Crown Castle has been chosen by a local wireless carrier to build out the new small cell network, which means they’ll handle all the planning, permitting, construction, and ongoing management and maintenance of the network. In order to effectively do this, representatives from the local Crown Castle office have been meeting with community members and working closely with municipal officials, utilities, and wireless carriers. A few key developments have come from this process:

  • Permitting: In accordance with all state and federal legislation as well as local ordinances, Crown Castle established which permits would be required, when they needed to be submitted, and when the town needed to respond.

  • Design considerations: Some community members expressed concern about preserving the aesthetics of the community. In this instance, it was determined that the best solution will be to place the nodes on top of streetlights. Other times, they may be placed on utility poles. They’ll be designed to blend in with the existing structures.

  • Safety: Some citizens have questions about safety. Crown Castle has provided assurance that only licensed contractors with a proven track record for safety will work on the project. They also directed community members to several reputable studies as well as the FCC’s guidelines on safe radiofrequency exposure, which the equipment would operate well below.

  • Shared model: Several wireless carriers serve Anytown. The small cell network will be designed so multiple carriers can use it—spreading the benefits as evenly as possible throughout the community.

 

Through this collaborative process, Anytown now has a clearly defined plan in place to install seven fiber-connected small cell nodes using existing streetlights and utility poles. The new network will work with the existing tower to add much-needed capacity to Anytown’s wireless network. So let’s see how that will work.

04 bar implementation

Adding more wireless density.

With the frequency bands that carriers currently use to transmit their signals, if too many people are connected at once, data can slow down. By adding seven new small cell nodes, we’ve multiplied our wireless density several times over. Each node is capable of sending and receiving the same amount of data as the tower, but since they cover a smaller geographic area, it’s much less likely that any one of them will get overwhelmed.

With the addition of seven new small cell nodes, Anytown’s network is able to handle many more simultaneous connections.

There’s another important benefit. Before, the network originated from one location—the tower. It covered a large area, but in certain areas of town—in the shadow of a building for example—the signal would occasionally get lost. But now the signal originates from eight separate locations—seven of which are much closer to the devices, providing much more consistent coverage throughout Anytown. It’s also a shared infrastructure solution, meaning that multiple wireless carriers can be accommodated on the same pole. This reduces unnecessary equipment redundancy and maximizes the benefits for residents—regardless of which company they get their wireless service from.

05 bar the result

Anytown today.

Residents’ devices are working as expected again, but this isn’t just a story about people watching more videos and spending more time on social media. Anytown has embraced and implemented new smart city technologies, which have eased traffic congestion, aided first responders, and led to new efficiencies in the electrical grid, utility monitoring, and other public services. Businesses are also finding new, innovative ways to take advantage of the faster, more dependable service—creating new jobs and economic opportunities. But perhaps most important of all, residents have added peace of mind knowing that the people who are most important to them are always a tap, click, or screen away. And should they need it, they have instant access to 911 services—while the police officers, firefighters and paramedics have the reliable, secure network they need to respond quickly and appropriately.

With a new small cell network, Anytown residents can now use their devices and fully embrace the newest technologies.

What about the future?

Anytown now has a modern network with plenty of capacity. This will put them in a great position to embrace new and emerging technologies like 5G and the internet of things. Because the nodes are fed by fiber, they often can be easily upgraded by swapping out equipment on either end. And when new nodes are needed later on, a simple, repeatable process has been established. Anytown now knows it’s ready for the future—and the next time you hear about small cells, you’ll know what it means for you.

Learn more about the benefits small cells will bring to 5G.

06 bar small cell gallery

What do small cells actually look like?

Crown Castle works closely with communities to make sure local ordinances are followed and aesthetics preserved. With thousands of small cell nodes already deployed around the country, there’s a good chance you’ve walked by them before and never even noticed. Here are few examples of what a small cell in your community could look like:

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* Mobility Report, Ericsson, 2018

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