How Does Emerging Technology Affect Cell Sites?

As a landowner in the wireless industry, you may be aware of several advancements in wireless technology recently that have claimed to threaten the need for cell towers. Most notable was lightRadio, which claimed that a Rubik’s cube-sized device would likely be the demise of cell towers. To put it simply, we’re just not there yet. These claims are usually based on wild speculation at worst and uninformed journalism at best. Most recently, spray-on antenna technology was announced on Google’s “Solve for X” forum. Like most of these types of announcements, the technology behind the idea is not explained sufficiently (or at all, really).

We strongly urge you not to panic if you hear of the next downfall of the cell tower in the media. Please take a look at our featured articles “Why Cell Towers are Here to Stay.” It’s true that technological advances are influential, and small cell deployment, which is useful in densely populated areas where tall structures already exist, is on the rise. While small cell and DAS deployment won’t decrease the need for towers in rural areas, we believe the trend in the next 10 years will, in fact, lean towards small cell deployment.

Existing towers will likely not be affected by the new technologies well into the foreseeable future, which is why wireless carriers and tower companies are still seeking long-term leases on tower ground space. Towers are still the best and most cost-effective way to get coverage and capacity to wireless subscribers. But because of the public’s outcry against towers (which led to strict zoning ordinances governing tower placement), carriers will explore other means of expanding coverage when building a new tower is out of the question.

The small cell wireless technologies that will have ongoing commercial success and staying power are:

  1. Macrocell: This is the traditional technology as seen on traditional cell towers. The radius for a typical site is 1.75-2 miles, with ranges up to 4-5 miles if the antennas are located on a very tall guyed tower. Macrocells use a high-power cellular base station. Macrocells are located on towers, rooftops, and other existing structures. This is usually the preference for carriers in areas where the user density is low. In these typically suburban or rural environments, they will only move on to the less powerful technology if there are circumstances inhibiting the use of a macrocell.
  2. Microcell: Microcells use less power and their range of coverage is smaller. These sites are usually used in densely populated urban areas, where traditional coverage cannot be implemented. These sites can also be added to enhance network capacity in areas with very dense phone usage, such as college campuses, sporting events, malls, hotels, airports, and within buildings where there is no other way to get coverage. In areas where zoning restrictions limit the deployment of macrocells, the coverage you could get from one traditional macrocell site can be broken down into multiple microcells in a given area. Because of the multiple equipment sites, operation costs may be higher than traditional sites.
  3. Picocell: Picocells are similar to microcells in purpose: to provide coverage to a smaller area not able to be serviced by traditional coverage. Picocells are usually used to extend coverage to indoor areas where outdoor signals do not adequately reach, or to add network capacity to densely used areas. Picocells have a smaller radius of coverage, so their main use is inside buildings – or more recently, in airplanes. As with microcells, there need to be multiple cells connected through a base station. With the ever-increasing need for data on smartphones, Microcells and Picocells have seen a significant increase in use in the past several years.
  4. Femtocell: Even smaller than a picocell is a femtocell. These are used mainly for the home or small business. It connects to the internet through DSL or cable, and can typically support up to 16 active phones in a small area.