DENVER – A few years ago, you could hardly walk a trade show floor without hearing about small cells. Projections called for thousands of these cells to be hung from the rafters across the country.

So what happened?

Turns out, small cells are alive and well, judging by some of the stands on the exhibit floor of the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) Connect(X) – an event that resurfaced this week after some pandemic-induced down time.  

The thing is, a lot of these small cells are for private networks, using Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) on a business or school campus rather than the public networks that wireless carriers are building for 5G.

And there are lots of them. According to the OnGo Alliance, there are now more than 225,000 CBRS access points deployed. Compared to Wi-Fi, that’s a tiny number but it’s also a lot newer technology that’s in the very early deployment stages. 

At the same time, wireless operators like Verizon continue to deploy more small cells and they’re expected to do more of that as carriers densify their 5G networks. During its first-quarter conference call and annual update, Verizon said it had brought more than 15,000 additional 5G Ultra Wideband small cells into service, exceeding its annual goal.

Still, a lot of questions remain. How much of the carriers’ C-band deployments are small cells? Are mmWave deployments automatically counted as small cells? What’s indoor and what’s outdoor?

“It’s a very fluid conversation,” said Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics, referring to the definition of a small cell. Thousands of small cells are, indeed, out there. However, “it’s never as much as people hype it up to be.”

There’s also an increase in small cells installed indoors. With many offices still empty from the pandemic, it’s an opportunity to install neutral host systems with multiple carriers to entice people to come back to offices, “because you can’t have offices anymore with crappy cell phone service,” he said.  

Small cells always have been a difficult thing to define, said analyst Monica Paolini, president of Senza Fili. “How big is something before it is no longer a small cell?,” she said, noting that years ago, it was a hot topic of debate and remains so.  

“There has been a lot of small cell activity, even though you don’t call it small cell,” she said. “I would say in a lot of private networks, the hardware is a small cell, except that we don’t think about it that way.”

The Small Cell Forum (SCF) saw where things were headed a couple years ago when they predicted that enterprise would account for 68% of the total installed base of small cells globally by 2026. At that time, it was expecting a whopping 4 million enterprise small cells to be deployed in 2026 alone.

Small cells evolve

On the Connect(X) show floor, Kevin Swank, product marketing director at CommScope, said a lot of the early challenges with small cells involved architectures that required a lot of different radio access points, and small cells were usually centered around a single operator.

“Now the technology has evolved such that the number of radio access points has declined dramatically,” and they’re now multi-operator, so “given the right venue, small cells make a lot of sense.”

Small cells didn’t go away. “They evolved,” Swank said. For instance, they used to look more like Wi-Fi deployments with “all these cells everywhere. Now, we can group all these cells together,” and that’s resulted in a lot of improvements.

Bob Stone, director of carrier markets at Baicells, stood next to a table displaying Baicells’ small cell wares, with LTE for CBRS making a strong showing. Some are used for food trucks or outdoor concert events; others have been super popular with school districts looking to improve coverage for their students.

All the products that Baicells showed are considered small cells, so the baseband unit and radio head are all in a small, self-contained package. “That’s kind of the definition of small cell,” he said. “A lot of our small cells have macro-like functionality in their capabilities.”

Stone declined to comment on the state of small cells on an industry-wide basis. He could only speak for himself and Baicells’ experience. “We’re trudging away and we’re doing well,” he said.