Mobile network operators promise their subscribers that 5G will provide higher capacity, faster speed, higher energy efficiency, lower RAN latency, and create massive connectivity. However, these come at the cost of skyrocketing mobile data traffic demands.
According to global technology intelligence firm ABI Research, worldwide 5G mobile data traffic will reach 1676 Exabytes in 2026, a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 63%.
The fast-growing data traffic forces mobile network operators to upgrade their network capacity. With a limited number of new macro cell sites available and a limited number of 5G spectrums, the most practical approach is the dense deployment of 5G small cells, albeit at a high cost as well. Currently, Massive MIMO (mMIMO) macro cells have fulfilled 5G capacity demands, but these may not likely be adequate, making small cells more critical. By 2027, there will be 13 million outdoor 5G small cell deployments. 5G small cell deployments will overtake 4G in 2028.
"5G small cells complement macro cells, boosting network capacity and extending coverage in dense areas where signals are weak or unavailable," says Fei Liu, 5G - mobile network infrastructure industry analyst at ABI Research.
"They also allow network operators to derive more value from their existing spectrums by exploiting them more efficiently.
"Compared to the previous generation small cells, 5G small cells face more challenges in design and performance. 5G small cells need to be smaller and lighter while supporting larger bandwidths such as 100MHz and 200MHz," Liu says.
"With 5G, there is a wider range of deployment scenarios, forcing vendors to provide comprehensive solutions to support every need."
In the consumer market, mobile network operators in most countries focus on macro cell deployment for 5G. The actual data traffic growth rate determines the timing and extent of the network capacity challenge. Mass 5G small cell deployments will occur around 2025 when network capacity on the C-band should run out without additional spectrum or small cell densification. Enterprises and industry verticals are already deploying 5G small cells for their private networks.
"5G small cells make use of the backhaul established for macro cells, so mobile network operators should start deploying 5G small cells at locations with backhaul already established," Liu says.
"5G small cells can co-exist with macro cells, and self-organising networks help minimise risks from interferences between cells. Alternatively, mobile network operators should deploy different frequency bands on small and macro cells."
These findings are from ABI Research's 5G Small Cells application analysis report. The report is part of the company's 5G - Mobile Network Infrastructure research service, which includes research, data, and analyst insights. Based on extensive primary interviews, Application Analysis reports present in-depth analysis of key market trends and factors for a specific technology.