Tushar Kapadia, Telecom Infrastructure Consultant

Tushar Kapadia, Telecom Infrastructure Consultant

The telecom industry in India is familiar with small cells as radio access nodes with low power and small form factor. Small cells have gained popularity due to their aesthetics and clutter-free installations in the urban landscape.

Small cells are emerging as the preferred solution in India, both from the supply and demand pe­rs­pective. On the supply side, in the last few years, the in­dustry has experienced concerns about energy efficiency, performance of macro base transceiver station (BTS) cabinets and their air-conditioning requirements in Indian climate. The size of the BTS cabinets also sometimes created challenges in their capacity expansion in confined shelter spaces. Also, the tall towers and large antennae were eyesores in the skyline and landscape. Thus, small cells are better alternatives to macro BTS for 4G LTE networks.

On the demand side, data consumption has exponentially increased in recent years. In the last one year, the monthly av­e­rage data usage per subscriber jumped from 11.96 GB to 14.73 GB as per the Telecom Regulatory Autho­rity of India quarterly performance reports. The Co­v­id-19 pandemic, work-from-home, online education, etc. not only increased the data consumption of subscribers but also add­ed new users such as primary school children. This rising dema­nd has inc­reased the need for coverage and capacity expansion of existing telecom networks. Small cells are definite options for the densification of network coverage. For indoor coverage, the combination of small cells and distributed antenna system (DAS) is a suitable solution. In essence, small cells have advanced as the acceptable solution for capacity and coverage growth of 4G LTE networks.

Current deployments by telcos

Up to 2016, telcos deployed and expanded 2G networks in 900/1800/2100 MHz spectrum bands with node B radio access BTS and base station controller sites. Telcos’ main revenue in that pe­riod came from voi­ce calls. Then, with successful voice over LTE, the roll-out of IP-based 4G LTE networks co­mmenced.  But telcos could not afford to phase out older 2G and 3G networks. In the same era, data consumption started increasing and became the major revenue stream while voice call re­venues reduced. Due to this shift, Indian telcos also decided to move out of 2G, 3G and started migrating to 4G LTE with spectrum re-farming. For outdoor coverage, the present deployment is a mix of ma­c­ro BTSs and small cells. As of now, telcos have installed small cells in large buildings and public places for in-building and Wi-Fi coverage. In the absence of comprehensive data, small cells are estimated to be about 5 per cent of total BTS sites in India. On the sidelines, it is observed that small cell sites are still owned and maintained mainly by telcos themselves or their vendors and not by towercos.

Adoption by end-user segments

With sharp rise in  indoor data usage in the past year, small cells with DAS focused in-building solutions in residential complexes have become increasingly relevant for telcos. Smart city projects have taken a secondary position. For public Wi-Fi projects, small cells have been deployed on light poles and street furniture.

By a  rule of thumb five to six small cells can be considered equivalent to a macro BTS for the coverage and capacity objectives. As of now, the proportion of small cell sites is far lower than macro sites. Never­the­less, for large scale 5G deployment, small cells deployment will far exceed macro sites in the next three to four years.


For universal coverage and capacity for high-speed data, network densification is a key task. The superior features of small cell tech­nology (such as plug and play, self-optimising) are enablers for densification. Still, tel­ecom industry participants – telcos, origi­nal equipment manufacturers, towercos and policymakers – need to focus on ad­d­re­ss­ing their challenges. The priority issues are:

  • Fiberisation for backhaul connectivity
  • Spectrum pricing for 5G high bands
  • Uniform right-of-way guidelines for quick deployment
  • Active infrastructure sharing policy for enhanced role of IP-1 players
  • Ecosystem with synergy and long-term win-win objective

The way forward for 2022

India can consider the recent noteworthy developments in other countries to develop effective strategies for mass deployment of small cells in the 5G era. These are:

  • Transformation of towercos to digital infracos
  • Towercos acquired telcos’ small cell sites
  • Provisioning of fibre backhaul by digital infracos
  • Successful pilot trials of open RAN solutions with commercial off-the-shelf software-defined radio product
  • Long-term master services agreements between telcos and infracos for small cell deployment with suitable lock-in terms

Since India is poised for massive economic growth, the digital telecom infrastr­ucture will be a key ingredient. Hence, telecom stakeholders have an opportunity to work together in a time-bound manner for common good.