The Backbone of 5G Networks: A Guide to Small Cell Technology

March 12, 2020

What Is Small Cell Technology?

Major telecommunications providers in the United States are set to make heavy use of small cell technology to roll out 5G coverage throughout the country, but what exactly does this mean? 

In short, small cells make use of low-power, short-range wireless transmission systems (or “base stations”) that cover small geographical areas or small proximity indoor and outdoor spaces. Small cells have all the same characteristics of the classic base stations that have been used by telecom companies for years. However, they are uniquely capable of handling high data rates for mobile broadband and consumers and, for IoT, high densities of low-speed, low-power devices. This feature makes them perfect for the 5G rollout that promises ultra-high speeds, a million devices per square mile and latencies in the millisecond range.

How Small Cell Transceivers Work

According to RF Page, “Small cells work exactly similar to conventional cell concept with advanced techniques like MIMO, beamforming and millimeter waves for transmission. Low power transmitting stations can be easily deployed using small cell concept. Moreover, small cell hardware units are designed [to] reduce complexity, and thus, implementation is faster and easier.” 

These small base stations (“transceivers”) are wall mountable for indoor applications, and many of the small towers or lamp posts are outdoors. The backhaul connections are made with fiber, wired and microwave connections, making configuration less complicated than previous forms.

Types of Small Cell Tower

There are three types of small cells in the industry today: femtocells, picocells and microcells — each with its distinction based around its coverage capability and the number of individual users it can support.



Femtocells are small mobile base stations that help extend coverage for residential and enterprise-level applications. These are mainly used to offload networks when they become congested, extend coverage, and enhance building penetration for indoor consumers. 

  • Coverage area: 30-165 feet (10-50 meters) (indoor) 
  • 100 milliwatts
  • Supports 8-16 users 
  • Backhaul: wired, fiber 
  • Low cost 


A picocell is another type of small cell technology — a small cellular base station typically covering a small area such as in-building or, more recently, in-aircraft. Picocells are great for applications in offices, hospitals, shopping complexes, schools and universities — mainly small enterprises for extended network coverage and large data throughput.  

  • Coverage area: 330-820 feet (100–250 meters) (indoor) 
  • 250 milliwatts 
  • Supports 32-64 users 
  • Backhaul: wired, fiber 
  • Low cost 


The last of the small cell technologies, the microcell is a cell in a mobile network served up by a low-power base station that covers a limited area such as malls, hotels, unique spaces within smart cities or transportation hubs. Microcells are generally more substantial than a picocell, though the distinction is not always clear. The microcell can support a more significant number of users in unique geographical areas. 

  • Coverage area: 1600 feet-1.5 miles (500 meters-2.5 kilometers) 
  • 2-5 watts 
  • 200 simultaneous users 
  • Backhaul: wired, fiber, microwave 
  • Medium costs (more expensive than femtocells, picocells)

Massive IoT

IoT applications are already connecting millions of devices and smart sensors, creating a massive machine communication infrastructure — massive IoT. As the massive IoT infrastructure expands, traditional mobile networks have limitations for further enhancements to technological progress. 

5G is, therefore, necessary to make way for new, advanced technologies that will be internet and sensor-enabled, and companies and organizations will have to rethink or update antiquated IoT strategies. That’s where Telit comes in. 

Telit is the global leader in IoT enablement. Our enterprise-grade modules, connectivity, software and platforms help transform business through the power of IoT. Telit is also an active participant in the 5G ecosystem, contributing device-side expertise for manufacturers and operators of mobile infrastructure. 

Get to know the Telit 5G offering in IoT and mobile broadband.