Although the COVID-19 pandemic brought some disruption to wireless operator rollouts, the race to 5G has not slowed down. According to a Q1 global market study by S&P Global Market Intelligence, 158 local operators now run active 5G networks in 67 markets across the US, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia. Compared to Q1 of 2020, the number of active 5G networks has increased by nearly 70% as of March 2021 during a year when many operators had to delay their infrastructure improvements.

With networks continuing to expand their 5G footprint, operators must make critical decisions on how they want to achieve higher data transmission and the increased capacity benefits of 5G networks without breaking the bank. One significant piece to this network puzzle has become the adoption of small cell densification.

Leading 5G with efficient small cell densification

According to a study by Rethink RAN Research, the demand for data traffic is expected to swell from 51,115 EB per month in 2020 to 77.46 million EB per month in 2027. To accommodate this anticipated growth of data traffic, it's also estimated that 1.56 million private 5G small cells will be deployed by 2027.

This high-density 5G small cell deployment has become the ideal solution to rollouts in urban settings where demand is high and efficient spectrum reuse is essential. Plus, they offer a number of advantages including:

  • Fast-deploying
  • Simplified planning and ordering
  • Custom luminaire and collar options
  • A total integrated solution from power to backhaul

Another reason why small cell growth continues to advance exponentially lies in the ease of acquiring zoning approvals in crowded environments. Due to their aesthetically pleasing designs, small cells, also known as metro cells, have made local government approvals simpler. Today, they can be configured where the RF equipment is housed at the top, middle, bottom or integrated in a pole, providing alternatives that can meet even the strictest ordinances. In addition, many metro cells are physically smaller: smaller radios, more compact antennas and so forth, while still being able to meet performance targets.

While meeting code has become simpler for network operators when deploying small cells, network operators are still challenged with procuring the right location. After all, a small cell site is more than just the radio and antenna—it’s also about the power distribution, fiber-optic backhaul connectivity, and ideally, a battery backup power. And unfortunately, these elements aren’t shrinking in size as quickly as the radios themselves.

Because the costs associated with the site’s installation and management makes a big impact on operations, the added complexity to site architecture and energy use remains the number one OpEx consideration. How can an operator maximize his existing infrastructure to accommodate the need for smaller cell sites?

A smarter way to power your small cell networks

With a typical three-sector small cell demanding 200–1,000 watts of power, the best way to overcome these interrelated challenges would be by re-evaluating the architecture of small cell clusters themselves. Because many of these functions could be centralized remotely in a hub-spoke architecture, exploring this option makes sense. What if one simple solution could provide reliable AC and DC power connectivity, service continuity via battery backup, as well as fiber backhaul connectivity? 

This is where deploying CommScope's PowerShift® Metro shines as a 5G infrastructure strategy. This innovative, patent-pending solution delivers cost-effective power, fiber and battery backup to clusters of small cells up to two miles away. Or said another way, it can cover up to a four-square-mile area, which equated to almost 6.5 square kilometers.

At the heart of the PowerShift Metro solution is a power hub—AC power supply, rectifier and battery backup—that can be deployed from any central location or macro site. This power hub distributes power (from the grid) and up to 144 fiber strands to clusters of small cells arranged in a “hub and spoke” architecture. The power hub also contains enough battery backup to deliver full power to 20-30 small cells should the grid power fail.

In addition, the power hub is a fully self-contained power station complete with cooling, power and space for additional gear—so operators can use it to install and house other components such as virtualized distributed units, baseband units, computer and network switches, and more.

It also features built-in safety features to enable non-certified electrical personnel to install the solution quickly and effectively. In most cases, the cable can be co-routed with other communications cabling. A unique, expandable bus structure lets you add edge nodes or additional power, often without cable upgrades. Real-time monitoring delivers a wide range of data—like voltage, current, and operating temperature—on-site or from any web browser.

PowerShift Metro also supports applications such as fixed- wireless access points, mobile edge computing, hybrid fiber coaxial cabinets, smart city installations as well as other apps.

A solution such as this can impart a number of highly valuable benefits when deploying 5G small cell clusters in urban settings, including:

  • Centralized battery backup resources instead of bulky batteries built into individual sites
  • Efficient power management that can be customized to deliver precise voltages
  • Less complex sites that are faster, easier and more economical to deploy
  • Flexible backup capabilities that enable node prioritization in the event of grid failure
  • Intelligent power management to unlock “peak shaving” abilities that can reduce power costs
  • Offloaded site functions that enable smaller, more zoning-friendly small-cell form factors

By reducing the number of uncontrolled variables, PowerShift Metro allows operators to have complete control over how, when and where to add small cell coverage—so they can swiftly respond to new market opportunities and reduce time to market while cutting down overall costs and booting network reliability.

5G deployments show no signs of slowing down

There's no question that the growth of 5G will continue to multiply exponentially in the next several years. We know this because all wireless operators surveyed have this in their sites. But not all networks are expected to achieve this on identical timetables.

According to Rethink RAN Research's new study, China will be a primary driver of 5G along with the US, UK, South Korea and Japan. India, on the other hand, will need more time to ramp up to 5G as it continues to complete a nationwide 4G rollout in order to upgrade 70% of its 1 billion active mobile users who are still utilizing 2G.

So, 5G traffic for mobile users is unlikely to overtake 4G until 2027—although 2025 seems more likely when Fixed Wireless Access is taken into consideration.

Besides, ramping up networks to achieve 5G shouldn't be the ultimate goal as we know that the call for 6G isn't too far behind. Operators should be seeking future-ready solutions that anticipate tomorrow's infrastructure requirements. How network operators step up to the today's challenges of migrating to 5G will determine how smoothly they will be able to transition to the next evolution.

While deploying small cell densification today seems like the ideal solution, exactly how it's implemented will determine how nimble the network will be for what's next.

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