Guide to Small Cells: Femtocell, Picocell, and Microcells (2021)

Guide to Small Cells: Femtocell, Picocell, and Microcells (2021)

Written by Wilson Amplifiers
22nd Jun 2021

It seems like the heart of a big city should be overflowing with a strong cell phone signal, but why don’t phones always work faster in these highly populated (and cell phone tower-rich) areas? It’s complicated. As much as distance from cell towers can impact service speeds—we know how much extra searching it takes in rural areas—congestion from too many users can be just as harmful to your calls, texts, and download speeds.

As popular demand for high-speed, readily available 4G/LTE service (and the added pressure of 5G) continues to increase, small cells have gained popularity for their ability to expand the capacity of dense, overloaded networks. Small cells are especially popular for large events with high attendance, because it can help to bypass the data congestion. They have also gained popularity in busy places like office buildings and transportation hubs, where blocked signals and capacity limits have become an issue for cell phone users.

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What is a Femtocell?

To fully understand femtocells (also known as microcells), let’s start with the big boys – macrocells. Macrocells provide radio coverage for cellular networks. They are served by high-power cell sites, such as towers, antennas, or masts. Basically, macrocells can provide cellular network coverage for large areas. But, many people still struggle with unreliable cell phone signal in their homes and office buildings. Things like building material, tall buildings, and terrain, can interfere with the signal.

Small cells are similar to macrocells, but smaller in size. Essentially, they take care of the small areas that macrocells struggle to reach. They consist of small low-powered antennas to improve the cellular coverage and capacity in smaller areas. There are three types of small cells: metrocells, picocells, and femtocells. Femtocells are the smallest type of small cell and operate on licensed frequency bands. They are low-power cellular base stations that require a high-speed broadband connection to improve cell phone signal in homes and small businesses.

They look similar to wireless access points (routers), but they work very differently. Routers create a local wireless network and femtocells create a local cellular network. Unlike routers, femtocells use your internet connection and convert it into a reliable cellular signal.

How do Femtocells Work?

Many people are able to get internet in their homes but struggle with poor cell phone signal and dead spots. Femtocells are designed to solve those problems.

They are typically provided by your cellular carrier. To create a cellular network, the femtocell will need to establish a connection with your cellular provider through a broadband internet connection. Most femtocell systems are compatible with cable, DSL, and fiber internet. They will not work with satellite or wireless internet.

An ethernet backhaul will be required to connect the femtocell to your router. After the device has been installed, you will have to register the phone numbers of the subscribers (mobile phones) that will be connecting to it. Many devices can be registered, but only 4-8 handset devices will be able to use the femtocell simultaneously. The other subscribers will have to wait for their turn.

When you make a phone call or send a text message, the signal travels through your internet connection, into a FEMTO gateway, and then it’s sent out to its destination. Essentially, femtocells are your personal mini cell towers. As a result, you will no longer have to rely on WiFi calling to avoid dropped calls and unsent SMS messages. But, like with all connectivity devices, you have to be within the femtocells range to maintain a reliable network connection. Typically, they provide a coverage area of 10 meters (32 feet), but it can vary based on the make and model. If 10 meters is not enough, you might need additional units to cover large indoor spaces.

The registered devices should experience a seamless handover when transitioning from the femtocell to macrocell, assuming reliable cellular signal is available. On the other hand, transitions from macrocells to femtocells can be challenging. If you’re on a call, your cellular signal will not transfer from the cell tower to your femtocell, potentially causing the call to drop.

However, there are two drawbacks to femtocells. Since they use your internet connection's bandwidth to create a cellular signal, you can experience speed slowdowns when the internet is in use and phone calls are being made simultaneously. Lastly, femtocells are carrier-specific. If you have the AT&T microcell and your family uses T-Mobile, they will not be able to benefit from the improved cellular signal.

Where can I Get a Femtocell?

Most femtocells are provided by your cellular carrier. To get one, you might need to go through a qualification process to make sure the device will work in your area.

Check out the different femtocells provided by major cell phone carriers:

  • AT&T MicroCell: Unfortunately, this device has been discontinued, but it’s still worth mentioning. The MicroCell only supported 2G and 3G signals. To work, it was recommended that your broadband supported a minimum of 1.5 Mbps downstream and 256 Kbps upstream. A total of 15 devices could be registered to use the MicroCell, but only 4 devices could use it simultaneously. Through the MicroCell online portal, users could control which devices could connect to the MicroCell. The signal range approximated 5,000 square feet (40 ft). However, walls, furniture, and building material could affect the coverage area and the strength of the signal.
  • Verizon 4G Network Extender 2: The Network Extender enhances 4G LTE coverage and provides access to 4G LTE data, HD voice, and video calling. To do its job, it needs an internet connection with a minimum of 10 Mbps download speeds and 5 Mbps upload speeds. For optimal performance, 20 Mbps download speeds and 10 Mbps upload speeds (or better) are recommended. They can cover areas up to 7,500 square feet (50 ft) and it can withstand up to 14 simultaneous voice calls. The only downside is that there is no way to control who accesses the device. Anybody who has Verizon can connect to the Network Extender and reap the benefits.
  • Sprint Airave 4: Sprint users who want an Airave to enhances LTE and voice coverage must qualify for it. The qualifications are based on specific account criteria to ensure that it will work for the customer. Not all locations are in the Airave’s coverage areas. Under perfect conditions, it can cover areas up to 5,000 square feet. If the coverage area is not enough, additional units can be used. A total of 8 wireless voice calls are supported simultaneously and 16 LTE simultaneous sessions. Similar to the network extender, any Sprint user can use the Airave and benefit from the enhanced signal.
  • T-Mobile 4G LTE CellSpot V2: The CellSpot creates 3G, 4G, and 4G LTE to improve indoor coverage, voice calls, and data speeds. Under perfect conditions, it can cover up to 3,000 square feet. It’s recommended to have a reliable internet connection with 2 Mbps download speeds (or more), 0.5 Mbps upload speeds (or more), and a latency/ping measurement of 200 ms (or less). The CellSpot supports up to 16 simultaneous users – 8 on 4G LTE and 8 on 3G/4G. Similar to Verizon and Sprint, there is no way to control who uses the CellSpot.

Femtocell Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages

  • Improves the quality of service in homes and small offices
  • Will work even if there is no cellular signal available
  • Can monitor the connected mobile devices through the femtocell’s online account (if the option is available)
  • Can improve battery life since the phone is not constantly searching for a cellular signal

Disadvantages

  • Are carrier-specific
  • Only work indoors
  • Can slow down your internet speeds
  • Calls do not transition from cell towers to the femtocell
  • They require DSL, cable, or fiber internet which is not available everywhere
  • Cell service providers may charge additional monthly fees for the device on top of an initial payment

What is a Signal Booster?

Signal boosters (sometimes referred to as cell phone repeaters) are FCC approved gadgets that work with any cellular carrier to improve voice calls, phone signal, and data speeds. They enhance 2G, 3G, 4G, and 4G LTE signals for better use. These devices are designed for homes, offices, and vehicles.

How do Signal Boosters Work?

Rather than requiring an internet connection, signal boosters use antennas to boost existing signal. So, how do signal boosters work? They are made up of four components:

In short, they use the outside antenna to capture the weak outside signal, an amplifier to boost the signal, and an inside antenna to broadcast the boosted signal into the desired areas. In addition, they also work in reverse to improve the communication between your cellular devices and the cell towers.

To work their magic, booster systems require an existing cellular signal outside your home, office, or vehicle - even if it's just one bar. They can enhance the signal, not create it.

The location of the outside antenna is extremely important. Whether you have good or poor signal outside, you will need to set up the antenna on the side of your home or office that has the best signal. It’s recommended to install the antenna on the roof of your home, building, or vehicle. This way you can reduce the number of obstructions blocking you from the nearest cell towers.

With the help of coaxial cables, the outside antenna can route the weak signal to the amplifier for boosting. There are a variety of different amplifiers available; they differ in the amount of power they are capable of producing and how much area they can cover. Residential boosters can cover areas from 250 to 7,500 square feet and commercial boosters can cover areas up to 100,000 square feet.

After the amplifier has boosted the weak signal, it will pass it onto the indoor antenna. The indoor antenna will broadcast the amplified signal into the desired areas. As a result, mobile signal boosters will help improve dropped calls, slow data speeds, and unsent text messages.

After the installation has taken place, you don’t need to register the devices that will be using the booster. Also, phone calls and data streaming will seamlessly transition from the booster to cellular towers, and vice versa.

Signal Booster Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages

  • Improves 5G, 4G, and LTE signals
  • Eliminate dropped calls, unsent text messages, and sluggish internet
  • Does not need a WiFi connection to work
  • Seamless transition between the signal booster and cell towers
  • One-time purchase, there are no monthly or reoccurring charges
  • Work with multiple cell carriers
  • Support multiple devices at once
  • Compatible with all cellular devices (iPhone, Samsung, LG, and more)
  • Are available for vehicles, homes, and offices
  • Can improve battery life since the phone is not constantly searching for a cellular signal
  • Standard two-to-three-year warranty on most signal boosters from reputable manufacturers.

Disadvantages

  • They don’t work in areas that have absolutely no signal
  • Installation can take some level of handiness

Should I get A Femtocell or a Signal Booster?

Deciding between a femtocell and a signal booster can be very difficult. After all, they both improve your mobile network.

We recommend signal boosters for users who can detect an existing signal, but find that it’s too weak. If no signal is detectable, then a femtocell is probably a good idea. If you’re interested in giving a cell signal booster a try, we recommend checking out our cell phone signal booster guide. We also have a great customer support team that will be happy to help you pick out the perfect cell phone signal amplifier for your home, office, or vehicle. Give us a call at 1-800-568-2723 or send an email to sales@wilsonamplifiers.com. We can’t wait to get you the best signal you’ve ever experienced!

Some advantages to signal boosters:

  1. Rather than being carrier-specific, signal boosters can be used by multiple carriers.
  2. Multiple devices can use the signal booster simultaneously.
  3. Signal boosters are not restricted for indoor use; vehicle boosters are available to improve signal on the road.
  4. Phone calls will seamlessly transition from the cell towers to the booster, you won’t have to worry about dropping the call.

What’s the Difference Between a Macrocell and a Small Cell?

Unlike a cell phone tower or other common types of high-powered macrocells that cover large areas for a cellular network, a small cell covers a much smaller range. Just like a macrocell, however, these cellular base stations work like mini cell phone towers to create a lower-powered mobile phone network using those same radio waves. Your calls and text messages will use your internet connection to travel through a FEMTO gateway before the signal is broadcast out to its destination.

A small cell can cover a range of 10 meters to several kilometers. While the FCC has relaxed restrictions for the use of small cells in recent years, they still have their limitations. Small cell antennas must have a volume that’s smaller than three cubic feet, and all other equipment must be no more than 28 cubic feet. They also can’t be mounted any higher than 50 feet or be more than 10% taller than nearby structures.

The Difference Between Femtocell, Picocell, Microcell

Small cells can be broken into three categories: femtocells, picocells, and microcells. A femtocell is the most common of the three, and also the smallest—microcells are the largest. Small cell is the umbrella term, but femtocell is the most widely used (and commercially available, though a variety of terms have been in use: metrocells, metro femtocells, super femtos, Class 3 femto, greater femtos, and microcells.

Femtocells, picocells, and microcells are differentiated by their range and user capacities:

  • Femtocells: cover an area up to about 10 meters, and no more than 6 users at a time. Operates on licensed frequency bands.
  • Picocells: cover an area up to about 200 meters, and no more than 64 users at a time.
  • Microcells: cover an area up to about 2 kilometers, and no more than 1,800 users at a time.

Does my Carrier Offer Femtocells, Picocells, or Microcells?

Though they once had a fairly extensive inventory, AT&T has discontinued their MetroCell program. Verizon femtocells, however, are still available. Marketed as “Wireless Network Extenders”, the femtocell Verizon offers can use your existing high-speed broadband connection to connect to their wireless network. Unlike the local wireless network of Wi-Fi routers, femtocells use this connection so you create your own local cellular network. T-Mobile offers similar options for femtocells, as well.

In order to connect the femtocell to your router, anethernet backhaul will need to be performed. After installation, you’re required to register the cell phones of your subscribers using their mobile phone numbers. Most units can handle 4-8 devices at a time. Keep in mind that femtocells are carrier specific, so if you do choose to invest in one, it will only work for users in your chosen network.

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