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John Cinicolo: The Benefits of Deploying Small Cells in the Next Phase of 5G

The true benefits of 5G are delivered with millimeter wavelength frequencies of 24 GigaHertz and above.



The author of this Expert Opinion is John Cinicolo, who leads Tillman Digital Cities’ Technical Operations.

The digital divide continues to grow, but a solution may be here: small cells. As we enter into the next phase of 5G, cell carriers need to understand the importance of deploying small cells to increase connectivity and help close the digital gap that many Americans are facing. Here’s how small cells can help bridge the digital divide and what impact they will have on communities and the overall infrastructure market.

While 5G can be deployed across all frequency bands, the true benefits are delivered with mmWave (24 GigaHertz and above) frequencies.  These frequencies support increased data bandwidth and speed over a smaller, dense user environment.  In this context, 5G mmWave small cells are ideal as a targeted overlay for high bandwidth areas where 4G provides only the foundation of service.

At these frequencies, the benefits of 5G mmWave small cells include:

  • High data rates/bitrate
  • Very low latency
  • Wide channel bandwidth for higher data capacity
  • Small sized advanced antenna systems to implement high performance Massive-MIMO, RF Beamforming and Radio Frequency Beam Steering

However, the tradeoffs of 5G mmWave small cells include:

  • Smaller coverage area due to Radio Frequency propagation characteristics, i.e. poor wall penetration
  • Fronthaul requirements for high data capacity and throughput
  • Handset designs required to support Radio Frequency benefits, i.e. Massive-MIMO antenna.

As 4G evolved, many enhancements were implemented such as MIMO and carrier aggregation, which improved performance. The additional performance improvements of 5G are somewhat dependent on frequency bands. At low bands (sub 3 GHz) the performance benefits over 4G are relatively minor since these bands have narrower channel bandwidth with a slower data rate.  Coverage area is larger at these frequencies which is a benefit for use on macro towers.  However, since antenna designs are a function of frequency, Massive-MIMO features require a relatively large and heavy antenna array which is not generally practical, so there are limitations in the implementation of those Radio Frequency enhancements.

The availability of Midband frequencies (3-6 GHz) has improved this, which includes C-Band and Auction 110 frequencies in the 3.4 GHz to 4 GHz range in the U.S.  These frequencies offer a balance of coverage and performance including a wide channel bandwidth, but do not match the low latency and high data rate characteristics of mmWave.  5G deployment in this frequency range is practical in areas where total data throughput demand is high and coverage area requirements are moderate, so fewer small cells are required in this frequency compared to mmWave.

mmWave small cells provide the highest performance of 5G and are ideal for concentrated areas of high traffic and/or low latency requirements.  The hardware is smaller in size due to the Radio Frequency design characteristics which reduces deployment restrictions and aesthetics.  Due to its small coverage area this service would typically be targeted as an overlay of 4G service.

Overall, the implementation of 5G small cells must consider the frequency bands and their capabilities in order to meet the performance needs of the targeted area.

How small cells can mitigate local concerns of larger towers being developed

Radio Frequency characteristics are a key factor for determining macro network densification.  For example, tall towers using low bands can serve a large coverage area, but that also means that its capacity is shared over that larger area. This is ideal for rural areas with low user density, but not so much for dense urban areas.  Small cells are needed to further densify the mobile networks in areas where the coverage area and corresponding traffic demand is in line with the solution being designed.

As the frequency range increases, the size of antennas decreases.  For example, a Massive MIMO antenna for a low band tower can be over 6 feet tall, yet the size of a postage stamp in a mmWave small cell is much smaller  Therefore, higher frequency small cells can be more easily concealed, especially with mmWave small cells, and can be more easily approved by local entities.

The cellular infrastructure market in 2023

Tillman Digital Cities is focused on supporting mobile carriers in densifying their networks where they need it most: indoors.  As we know, the majority of mobile calls are made indoors yet mobile coverage is generally more challenging.  This is further impacted by new building construction materials for energy efficiency and LEED certification where Low-E glass significantly attenuates Radio Frequency signal penetration, resulting in poor indoor signal levels from the outdoor towers.

The challenge for mobile carriers is how to solve this problem for the vast majority of buildings that fall below their priorities which are driven most often by venue size.  TDC’s approach to solve this indoor mobile coverage and capacity problem includes leveraging newer technologies that are more economical to deploy.  This allows us to offer innovative and cost-effective options to both the mobile carriers and the real estate owners where TDC owns and manages these solutions over their lifespan including upgrades to new technologies and services.  We see the increasing demand for indoor service, both coverage and capacity, across all venue types.

John Cinicolo leads Tillman Digital Cities’ Technical Operations function including solution architecture, technology strategy, program execution and technical services.  Cinicolo has more than 35 years of experience building mobile technology business around the world in leadership roles with global network infrastructure provides and entrepreneurial startups.  He holds a Bachelors of Engineering in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.


FCC Votes to Preserve Parts of 12 GHz Spectrum Band for Satellite Use

In light of technical evidence, the FCC has voted to preserve 12.2-12.7 GHz band for satellite purposes.



Photo of FCC Commissioners Nathan Simington, Brendan Carr, Jessica Rosenworcel, Geoffrey Starks (left to right)

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission voted in an open meeting Thursday to preserve parts of the 12 GHz spectrum band for advanced satellite service.

The FCC adopted rules to preserve spectrum in the 12.2-12.7 GHz band for satellite services by refusing to authorize two-way, high-powered terrestrial mobile use on the same band due to the significant risk of harmful interference to existing satellite services.  

“In 12.2 we are correcting course in response to technical evidence,” said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in his comments. “Based on the studies filed, our engineers have concluded to date that high-powered mobile broadband when deployed throughout the country will interfere with established and emerging satellite services that serve millions of customers and is growing.” 

“I would have welcomed a path forward that allowed both services to thrive, but for now, it is time for us to adapt,” he concluded. 

The FCC also adopted a proposal to repurpose some or part of the 12.7-13.25 GHz band to support flexible terrestrial wireless use and is seeking comment regarding the action. 

Starlink, SpaceX’s satellite broadband service provider said in a letter to the FCC earlier this month that it appreciated that the proposal to reject the use of high-powered mobile operations in the 12.2-12.7 GHz band would be considered.  

The company has raised alarm for years about potential interference issues if the commission opens the band to mobile use.  

RS Access said in a letter to the FCC that the band is compatible with both mobile and satellite operations. The letter suggested that the FCC “tentatively conclude” that high-power fixed operations are compatible with other “co-primary operations.” 

The company’s CEO, Noah Campbell, issued a statement following the FCC’s Thursday decision stating that he “welcomes the FCC’s unanimous and bipartisan vote on how to enable valuable consumer services in the 12 GHz band.”

Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel concluded her remarks with a plea for Congress to reauthorize spectrum auction authority to the FCC, which expired in March for the first time in its history. 

“Restoring this authority will provide the United States with the strongest foundation to compete in a global economy, counter our adversaries’ technology ambitions, and safeguard our national security,” she said. 

Continued crackdown on illegal robocalls and more flexible rules for 60 GHz spectrum

The FCC also approved and adopted new rules to further expand its robocall blocking requirements for voice carriers. The new rules will extend several call blocking requirements to include voice service providers that are not currently covered by FCC rules. 

In November, the FCC ruled that straight-to-voicemail robocalls will be subject to the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s consumer protections. The FCC has focused its energy over the last few years on eliminating robocall activity in the United States. 

“Today we build on these efforts by clarifying some of our rules designed to put a halt to illegal robocalls. We make clear that all carriers have a duty to respond to traceback requests in 24 hours so we can figure out who is behind any new rash of illegal robocalls,” said Rosenworcel in a statement.  

According to a Federal Trade Commission report, U.S. consumers reported a total of $798 million lost to fraud via phone call in 2022.  

The FCC also adopted new, more flexible rules for the 60 GHz spectrum band to support innovative radar technology, which include important applications that alert drivers to children left in hot cars, detect hand gestures to improve mobility, and assist drones in construction and emergency rescue, among other applications. 

“Welcome to the radar revolution. It is no longer just for tracking planes and measuring weather patterns. That’s because we are on the cusp of deploying radar technology for a much wider range of uses,” said Rosenworcel. “In this decision, we are updating our approach to the 60 GHz band. We are modernizing it so that it can be used to its full potential.” 

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Wireless Providers Urge Congress to Move on FCC Spectrum Auction Authority

Small wireless carriers urge Congress to give FCC authority to auction spectrum.



Screenshot of FCC meeting

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2023 – A group of small and regional wireless carriers urged Congress to reinstate the Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum auction authority in a letter sent to the hill on Thursday. 

“We urge Congress to swiftly act to reinstate the FCC’s authority to auction spectrum,” read the letter. “We depend on auctioned and licensed spectrum to offer the communities we serve the latest wireless innovations and secure and reliable service.” 

By allowing the FCC’s authority to lapse, continued the letter, Congress has “jeopardized our country’s wireless leadership and the benefits of wireless connectivity in rural, regional, and nationwide markets.” 

For the first time in its history, the FCC’s spectrum auction authority lapsed on March 9 following Congress’ inaction to pass a bill that would extend the agency’s authority. The authority to auction spectrum was first given to the FCC in 1994 and the agency has since hosted over 100 auctions and raised more than $233 billion in revenue.  

“For three decades, the FCC’s authority to auction the nation’s airwaves has been an indispensable tool for harnessing the promise of new wireless technologies while also spurring economic growth, creating jobs, and strengthening our national security and global leadership,” wrote Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement following the expiration. 

The Senate failed to act on a bill passed by the House in February that would extend the FCC’s authority to May 19 when Senator Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, proposed the deadline be pushed back to September 30 instead.  

Rounds and Hirono argued that the date change would allow the Department of Defense and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to complete a study on the impact of repurposing government spectrum for commercial use. 

Senator Peter Welch, D-Vermont, objected to the data change, claiming that it would prove a disincentive to a swift agreement on behalf of consumers. The delay in passing the bill sparked frustration in the House. 

“We are disappointed that the Senate has not acted to [pass the bill] because of the objections of one Senator, and that the FCC’s authority to issue spectrum licenses will expire for the first time ever as a result,” read a statement issued by Representatives Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, Cathy Rodgers, R-Washington, and others. 

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Crown Castle CEO Says 5G Plus Fixed Wireless Can Rival Fiber Connections

Experts say that 5G increases fixed wireless speed to be a competitor to wired networks.



Photo of Jay Brown, CEO of Crown Castle from Alter.

NEW ORLEANS, May 11, 2023 – Fifth generation mobile networks has enabled fixed wireless technology to be deployed in areas where it wouldn’t have been accepted otherwise, said Jay Brown, CEO of communications infrastructure company Crown Castle at a Connect (X) forum here on Wednesday.

Fixed wireless will never be a true replacement for a wired network, said Brown, but providers have been successful thus far because running 5G on a fixed wireless network brings speeds up to par with wired connections. “The speeds you get on a fixed wireless network [with 5G] are matching that of the wired solution,” he said.

We’ve seen that if given a choice, consumers will choose wireless over a wired connection, Brown continued, speaking at the Wireless Infrastructure Association trade show. Providers have noted an increase in demand for small cell towers that transmit wireless over a high frequency in a small geographic area, he claimed.

For many communities, managing aesthetic is singularly important and this desire fuels the deployment of small cells, he said.

Due to the faster speeds that 5G enables, providers are seeing deployment in areas that would not have accepted it otherwise due to its lower speeds, added Steve Vondran of American Tower, provider of wireless communications infrastructure..

This allows providers to enter previously untapped networks and connect people across rough terrain and in rural areas, he said.

“Fixed wireless is driving incremental returns but this is just the first application [of 5G],” said Brown. Our use cases haven’t evolved to utilize the full capacity of 5G, agreed Vondran.

Spectrum concerns

However, for wireless providers, spectrum allocations are a continuous concern. The Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum auction authority which allows it to auction spectrum for private use expired in March.

Vondran suggested that the government will need to work with the Department of Defense which holds a significant amount of spectrum to make more available privately.

“If the demand drivers are as predicted, we will need more spectrum made available,” said Jeff Stoops, CEO of SBA Communications.

Until more spectrum is released, industry leaders expect that spectrum shortages will lead to great densification of the networks, the process of increasing small cell towers in an area to address growing demand.

Leaders of the FCC urged lawmakers in a letter dated in April to extend the agency’s spectrum authority amid demands for more across the industry.

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