Small cell terminology is evolving with the technology: Femtocell? Picocell? Microcell?

Posted by Keith Day

These days it’s becoming difficult to distinguish between different types of small cells. What’s the difference between a microcell, a picocell and a femtocell?

All of these prefixes (femto, pico, micro) may in any case seem like unnecessary jargon, but like all industry terminology they emerged for a good reason – as useful insider shorthand that saves time and prevents misunderstandings. It works best when definitions are precise and categories are distinct.

But in small cells, technology evolution has stretched the established definitions, blurring the lines between the traditional categories.


The reason for this is that femtocell-originated technology is now being used in larger cells, where traditional picocells or microcells might have been used in the past. These new cells combine self-organising and self-managing capabilities, enabling a much greater cell density, with the ability to tap into the abundant reserves of fixed broadband backhaul, especially in metro areas. That provides the low Opex and low cost per GB data capacity required to satisfy the rapid growth in demand for mobile broadband.

Despite a wide spread of capabilities, and operating environments that range from residential to enterprise, public space, metro and rural, this new generation of small cells are all based on the same DNA.

So if the distinction provided by traditional prefixes is no longer useful, it’s not surprising that the collective term increasingly used to describe them is also becoming much simpler: they’re all small cells now.

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  • Zaffareen Khan

    I was wondering rather than using Microcell, Picocell, etc., do you think in future we may invent new names/jargon to distinguish between different types of cells. So a cell serving just one home could be distinguished from one that serves a row of homes and they should be in turn be distinguished from a cell that serves a building. Please let me know your thoughts.

  • Keith Day

    This could happen, but there would need to be a period of stability for new names to emerge. At the moment there is so much movement, with established categories overlapping or merging, that I think we will see a period of fewer terms to describe small cells.