Can small cells plug a big telecoms network sustainability gap?

Small cell networks and Open RAN can reduce wireless network energy consumption and emissions, while enabling fast and robust connectivity

Andy McKinnon

Telecommunications networks need to address energy consumption. That’s a fact. As we look forward to future networks, such as 5G Advanced and 6G, demands for faster, more reliable connectivity are only going to increase. As an industry, we have to find ways to address traditional approaches to network development and provision, to ensure we can minimise energy use and carbon emissions, as demand for services grows.

To a certain extent, some work is already being done, at least in terms of strategy. New legislation, such as the UK’s Energy Act 2023, is a key priority for telcos. Operators want to improve energy efficiency, especially in radio access networks (RAN), which comprise 70-85% of a mobile network’s total energy consumption. Upgrading to 5G and Open RAN promises higher speeds and capacity for consumers, while reducing environmental impact – but will it be enough?  

One transformative technology stands out for its ability to address these challenges in a uniquely efficient way: small cells. Small cell technology not only complements the shift towards more efficient and sustainable networks, but also plays a critical role in enhancing connectivity across the most challenging environments.

Tailoring connectivity with small cells

Small cells are compact wireless transmitters and receivers that cover a small geographic area or indoor space. They provide mobile connectivity and data services, similar to larger cell towers but on a much smaller scale.

This technology moves beyond a traditional “one size fits all” approach by offering tailored coverage that addresses specific needs in different environments. Instead of relying on large, towering cell stations that cover broad areas (macrocells), small cells are used to fill in coverage gaps in densely populated cities or extend services to remote rural areas where larger towers might not be present.

Small cell technology not only complements the shift towards more efficient and sustainable networks, but also plays a critical role in enhancing connectivity across the most challenging environments.

This strategy represents a shift towards more precise and adaptable network planning, allowing for improved mobile service where users need it most. But how do small cells contribute to sustainability? By design, they operate with:

  • Reduced energy footprint. Their compact size translates to lower power requirements and shorter signal transmission distances, minimising overall energy use.
  • Targeted coverage. Unlike the broad broadcasts of macrocells, small cells focus their signal on specific high-demand areas, eliminating energy wasted on unnecessary coverage.
  • Smart city integration. They serve as the backbone of smart cities, connecting sensors, grids, and IoT devices, enabling initiatives like renewable energy integration, traffic management, and waste reduction.
  • Cost savings. Adopting indoor small cells for applications like in-building cellular systems also offers significant cost benefits for businesses. These systems can substantially reduce energy consumption, directly reducing the carbon footprint of enterprise environments. Indoor small cells can offer up to 80% savings in power costs compared to traditional indoor cellular solutions, making them an economically and environmentally prudent choice.

Government and industry support

Beyond their inherent energy-saving design, small cells benefit from initiatives like the Joint Operators Technical Specification (JOTS) in the UK. This collaborative effort between mobile operators standardises technical aspects of small cells, including power consumption and sleep modes. This not only ensures compatibility and performance but also promotes consistent energy efficiency across diverse deployments. 

Shared infrastructure through the Neutral Host Operator (NHOD) model also presents a significant opportunity for UK operators to further minimise environmental impact. NHOD allows a third party to own and manage small cell infrastructure, leased by various operators. This eliminates duplicate deployments, reducing resource usage, energy consumption, and visual clutter.

Enabling 5G

Moreover, small cells act as the building blocks for robust, low-latency 5G networks. Traditional macrocells struggle to meet the ever-growing demand for data in high-traffic areas. By deploying small cells in dense urban environments, operators can significantly increase network capacity, ensuring smoother and faster 5G connections for users even during peak hours. Additionally, small cells can fill coverage gaps in rural areas, where macrocells might be impractical or costly.

With their shorter signal transmission distances, small cells can deliver stronger, more targeted and consistent 5G signals compared to macrocells. This is crucial for applications like connected vehicles and industrial automation, all of which demand ultra-low latency and reliable connectivity. By strategically placing small cells closer to users, 5G networks can achieve the responsiveness and precision required for these cutting-edge applications. 

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The impact goes beyond tech marvels. Deploying 5G small cells represents a conscious effort to address environmental concerns. Their lower energy consumption and targeted coverage minimise their environmental impact, supporting the industry’s commitment to sustainability.

Furthermore, 5G small cells can help in bridging the digital divide. Their affordability and flexible deployment enable wider network coverage, meaning they can boost connectivity in underserved rural areas. This translates to real-world benefits for communities: remote learning opportunities, telehealth services, and smart agriculture solutions are a few examples – all powered by these power-efficient network elements. This has an added benefit of potentially reducing transportation-related emissions, with increased connectivity reducing the need for commuting or driving to major metropolitan hubs.

Changing networks with Open RAN

Alongside the development of small cell technology, another innovation is paving the way for more efficient networks: Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN). While small cells are pivotal in enhancing network coverage and efficiency, Open RAN transforms the very architecture of telecommunications networks. 

By enabling multiple operators to deploy on the same small cell, Open RAN enables a more flexible, scalable, cost-effective and energy-efficient network infrastructure, complementing the benefits brought by small cells. Open RAN not only supports the deployment of small cells by making networks more adaptable, but also aligns with the industry’s sustainability goals by enabling a single deployment to operate for multiple operators. The synergy between small cells and Open RAN technologies will support a future where connectivity is stronger and more power-efficient.

The road ahead: collaboration for a sustainable future

By coupling innovative technologies like small cells and Open RAN, we can support a new era of environmentally responsible connectivity. As the UK government aims for net zero by 2050, the telecoms industry has a crucial role to play. Small cell technology, with its inherent power efficiency and compliance with initiatives like JOTS and new designs such as NHOD, is actively contributing to this goal. Along with wider adoption of energy-efficient technologies, small cells are filling a crucial gap within telecoms for both connectivity boosting and power efficient solutions. 

Andy McKinnon
Andy McKinnon / Guest Writer

Andy McKinnon is chief commercial officer at wireless infrastructure-as-a-service supplier Ontix.