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Just how big is a small cell? There’s a lot of buzz in the industry about the “next big thing,” but one person’s idea of a small cell may be completely different than another’s.

When small cells first came on the scene, anything smaller than a giant macro tower was considered “small.” There is no right or wrong size or type of small cell. There are many different kinds and they each have their own applications, proponents and detractors. Which technology or technologies ultimately rises to the top has yet to be determined. While different people use different terminology, here are a few of the most common types of small cells.

Microcells are one kind of small cell and they’ve been around for years in urban settings. They’re basically a smaller version of a macrocell and they’re typically used when an operator decides to “cell split” a larger macrocell into smaller units, increasing overall capacity.

A metrocell is small enough to sit on a lamppost or the side of building, and they’re mainly used as an overlay to complement existing coverage and provide greater capacity rather than replace a macrocell.

Picocells can be similar in size to a metrocell but are commonly found in indoor public areas like shopping malls and airports to improve coverage. They can also be used for enterprise applications.

Femtocells are typically the smallest units and are about the size of a typical WiFi router.  They can be used as personal base stations for home or office.

Where the industry lands in regard to cell sites might not be decided for a while, but it’s safe to say the general consensus is that smaller will become the new norm. Smaller sites create many exciting opportunities, along with many new challenges, such as sorting out competing technologies, zoning issues as sites migrate from larger central towers to smaller, less conspicuous locations, and determining the real estate value of smaller and smaller cell site footprints.

Stay tuned.