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5G Technology & Small Cells

Small cells will play a big role as 5G rolls out across Australia. But what are they? How do they work? And are they safe? Here are the facts about 5G small cells.

What are small cells?

Small cells are used in a complementary way within the larger mobile telecommunications network, or macro network, to improve coverage, add capacity, and support new services and user experiences.

There are various types of small cells used in mobile phone networks to transmit and receive voice and/or data. The smallest units are for indoor residential use, similar in size to a Wi-Fi modem. The largest units are for outdoor use and typically include a small equipment cabinet and antennas which can be attached to existing public infrastructure like light poles, power poles and buildings.

The coverage that a small cell is capable of providing can also be dependent on the radio frequency that is being used, and its characteristics. Radio frequencies in the lower or mid-band ranges will have a larger coverage area than radio frequencies used in higher ranges, such as the 26 GHz band. This high range frequency band will be used for 5G along with radio frequencies in the low and mid-band ranges.

5G small cells using higher frequency ranges, such as in the 26 GHz band, are expected to use less power and even smaller antennas than those used in existing 3G and most 4G services. These small cells are also expected to provide a smaller coverage radius of between 50 to 200 metres. This smaller coverage radius can mean telecommunications companies will need to install more equipment to provide extended coverage in that frequency range.

Why will the 5G network need small cells?

Data usage and consumption is on the rise and to meet expected consumer demand, telecommunications companies are investing in radiofrequency spectrum and infrastructure deployment.

Radiofrequency spectrum in higher ranges such as the 26-28 GHz bands have characteristics that enable a greater amount of data to be transmitted and received. These spectrum bands are referred to as millimetre wave (mmWave) bands and have been allocated globally for use by 5G.

While mmWave spectrum can carry large amounts of data, the characteristics of the spectrum mean that data cannot travel long distances or through obstructions, including buildings. This means telecommunications companies need to install more infrastructure to enable the mmWave network to effectively operate.

Small cells are an effective solution for mmWave networks and locations with high data traffic such as:

  • airports
  • office buildings
  • shopping centres
  • railway stations
  • sports venues and school campuses
  • city streets and densely populated urban areas and regional centres.

Will more small cells mean I’m exposed to more electromagnetic energy (EME)?

The level of EME emitted from telecommunications equipment, including from 5G small cell, is related to its power output. 5G networks are designed to be more efficient and use less power than current networks for similar services.

Our experience with the introduction of previous wireless technologies (3G and 4G) is that even with an increasing amount of telecommunications equipment being installed to support 5G networks, we can expect overall exposure levels to remain constant and at a small fraction of the exposure limits set out in the ARPANSA Standard.

Small cells are not new and will remain an essential part of our telecommunications network supporting the rollout of 5G.

Understanding the science behind how telecommunications works and what makes it safe will make you feel more confident about its role in our day to day lives.