A HiBoost Primer on Small Cells

Differences In Small Cells

 If you’re researching cellular solutions, it’s likely you’ll come across the term “small cell.” So here’s another HiBoost guide to what these mean in the telecommunications industry. 

There are several different types of small cells, including femtocells, picocells, metrocells, and microcells that are used as smaller cell sites. They all use far less power and thus support less cellular devices than a traditional cell site. Small cells densify the network by diverting traffic away from macro networks and increasing capacity. By this definition, DAS (distributed antenna system) is a small cell solution, as it does run at lower power and adds to the capacity of the network. Other systems were developed as obviously not every space needing additional coverage needs the full power of a traditional DAS installation.  

Small cells were initially created later in cellular network structures, as a stop-gap to increase network coverage. Nowadays, however, they play a vital role in delivering cellular coverage and coordinate better than ever with existing cellular networks. Increasingly, more options are plug-and-play and incorporate features such as HetNet and C-RAN. As urban areas become more densely populated and more mobile devices are in operation, small cells will become increasingly more common, especially as 5G support will be needed in the future.

Comparing Types of Small Cells

Here’s a table of the differences in small cell coverage based on type.

Small Cell Type Cell Radius Power Level (Watts) Number of Users
Outdoor DAS 1 mile 20 3,000 per sector
Indoor DAS Up to 200 feet per antenna 2 2,500 – 3000 per sector
Microcell 1 Mile 10 1,8000 per baseband unit
Picocell 750 feet 1 32
Femtocell 50-60 feet 0.1 4 – 6
Wi-Fi 50-60 feet 0.1 Up to 200 per access point


Small Cell- These are installed in areas such as stadiums, arenas, hotels and other high-density areas to boost cellular coverage and support high volume capacity usage. These are especially useful in densely populated areas, especially those with tunnels and subways and parking garages. These help give cellular coverage in areas it is impractical or impossible to build a new cell phone tower. They essentially operate as smaller cell towers.

Types of Small Cell:

Outdoor DAS (oDAS) and Indoor DAS (iDAS): Distributed antenna system. These are designed to distribute cellular signal throughout an area, either indoors or out. Of the two, indoors is far more common. These are designed and built to site specific areas such as hotels, arenas, outdoor venues, apartment complexes, malls, or large offices to boost the cellular signal and increase the usage capacity.

Microcell: a cell in a mobile network that is served by a low power cellular tower. These are capable of providing coverage to a limited area. Power control limits the coverage area’s radius. The range of most microcells is less than two kilometers. Microcells are often used in places like train stations that have very high phone usage, and can also be used in temporary situations such as triages for disasters like Hurricane Harvey or during sporting events, or times of dense usage such as tourism for the Great American Eclipse. A microcellular network is a radio network composed of only microcells.

Metrocell: a compact, unobtrusive mobile phone base station used in urban areas. Easily mounted on lamp posts, buildings, and found in high density areas. These give high data speeds and boost the mobile signal, and are a cost-effective way of providing cellular coverage. These are much much smaller than a base station and are usually about the size of a laptop. They can usually handle between 16-32 ongoing voice calls and can stream data at 3G and 4G speeds. They operate in carrier-specific spectrums and are maintained by the network operator.

Picocell: a small cellular base station that covers small in-building areas such as offices, malls, train stations, and aircraft. These are again far more cost-effective in increasing a network’s load capacity without the expense of a macrocell site. These are usually the size of a ream of A4 paper. They have a range of 200 meters or less.

Femtocell: a small, low-power cellular base station that is made for use in a small business or private residence. May also be referred to as a femto AccessPoint (AP). These connect to a service provider’s network via a broadband connection like DSL or cable. Femtocells are capable of handling 4-8 active mobile devices, or 8-16 for business settings. These extend coverage indoors or at the cell edge. This technology is available for all standards, including GSM, CDMA2000, TD-SCDMA, WiMAX, and LTE, although the current focus is on WCDMA. Femtocells basically gives users a small base station in their immediate area. Most cellular providers carry a femtocell service for businesses but also are available for residential installations. Femtocells have the shortest coverage distance, usually within 10 meters of the antenna.

Wi-Fi: technology for wireless local area networking. This involves your internet service provider (ISP) and not necessarily your cellular network provider. You can use Wi-Fi access for Wi-Fi calling, but your call will drop as soon as you move out of the coverage of the wireless router.

Other Terms:

Plug-And-Play: in this case, when a small cell is added to a network, software automatically adjusts to configure the device to work with the network based on its location and the network demands.

HetNets: a heterogeneous network. Refers to combining multiple types of wireless access nodes, such as small cells, macro cells, DAS, and wireless LANs (Local Area Networks) across a common coverage area. While these systems may come from different companies, they should exist as one physical structure for operators. Such networks involve a lot of work to integrate seamlessly, and interoperability between systems is a driving concern for many industries going forward.

C-RAN: A recent innovation in the architecture of small cells. The older traditional model is a standalone version with each access point having a base station, antenna, and radio. C-RAN uses a centralized unit which is capable of doing baseband processing for numerous radios that are distributed throughout a large building. C-RAN cells are mainly used in public venues and very large buildings, while a standalone small cell like a femtocell or picocell work in parts of buildings. C-RAN is generally better economically and creates a “borderless” cell with no loss of coverage.

Why You Should Choose HiBoost

All forms of small cell technologies will boost the capabilities of cellular networks. However, small cell technologies are carrier specific, meaning a cellular provider will own and operate the small cell for their specific licensed bands. In situations where all mobile device users need a boost, this makes a carrier specific small cell solution impractical. HiBoost’s cell phone signal boosters are different from small cells in that they do not actively create a signal, but boost the signal that is already available. For example, where the budget is not available for an active small cell installation like the ones listed above, cell phone signal amplifiers from HiBoost can be used instead.

HiBoost makes and sells cell phone signal boosters for a variety of uses, including automotive, home, commercial, and industrial use. Our boosters are FCC certified, and carrier agnostic, meaning they work to support multiple mobile device users and support all major U.S. carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular. That means our boosters work with every device and every cellular carrier, even if you switch plans. In addition, our boosters support all prior technologies as well, so even simple phones have clearer calls.  For smart devices, talk, text, and data are supported. 

Call Us Today For More Information

HiBoost’s smaller home and vehicular units are able to be installed by the end user. For commercial and industrial use, we team up with a national network of integration experts who are available for customized professional installation with turnkey solutions. Contact us for more information about our free floor plan analysis and professional cell phone signal booster installation in your area, and learn how a cell phone signal booster cellular solutions can help you Boost Your Bars today!


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