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

1st Dec 2020 by Wilson Amplifiers
Guide to Small Cells: Femtocell, Picocell, and Microcells (2021)
Discover what small cells are and the difference between femtocells, picocells, and microcells.

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What is a Small Cell?

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.


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, an ethernet 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.


Are there any Disadvantages to Femtocells?

One issue to consider when shopping for femtocells is the fact that they use the bandwidth from your internet connection to create your cellular signal. This does mean that, yes, concurrent internet usage can slow down both your cellular speed and your Wi-Fi speed.


Should I Buy a Femtocell or a Cell Phone Signal Booster?

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 these 7 signal boosters for 2021. We also have a talented customer support team that will be happy to help you pick out the perfect cell phone signal booster 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!

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