A guide to small cells | ACMA

A guide to small cells

What are small cells?

Small cells are low-powered mobile base stations that give coverage to highly populated areas. They strengthen mobile coverage to give you a faster and more reliable connection. Small cells are used to deliver 4G mobile services and will play an important role in providing 5G mobile telecommunications.

You can expect to see small cells on light, power and even tram poles. You may also notice small cells on ‘smart’ light pole systems (which combine lighting, Wi-Fi and mobile coverage), bus stops, railway stations and advertising panels.

An Optus small cell A Telstra small cell

How are small cells different?

Small cells are different to the larger ‘macro cell’ base stations commonly used with earlier mobile services, which provide coverage to a much wider area—up to several kilometres in some cases. Macro cells are usually installed on towers or roof tops.

A macro cell base station

Providers generally use one macro cell base station to cover an area. However, multiple small cells can be used to give you coverage in the same area. Small cells have a coverage range of 50–200 metres, can be installed inside residential and office buildings, and their antennas are never longer than 1.2 metres. They are smaller than macro cell base stations and have a lower power output.

Small cells are a key feature of 5G, the latest generation of mobile networks that are being introduced from 2019.

Who installs small cells?

In most cases Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, PIPE Networks (a subsidiary of TPG ) and Dense Air will be installing small cells in Australia.

Do I have a say if a small cell is installed near me?

To bring you better, cheaper services in the fastest possible time, providers are permitted to install and maintain certain types of equipment without local council or government approval. However, before installation of small cells they must notify owners and occupiers in the area.

Providers must follow the Mobile Phone Base Station Deployment code, which requires them to respond to submissions from councils and the public during the ‘comment’ period, as well as give a statement about their intentions and a timeframe for the start of construction.

If providers do not follow the rules set out in the code, they may be issued a direction to comply, with further breaches subject to action by the ACMA that can result in penalties of up to $250,000.

Why do we need more base stations?

Growing demand for streaming services, video calls and web browsing is driving the growth of mobile networks. With more users downloading more data at the same time, providers must have good network coverage with a high capacity.

The key is to introduce more—but highly targeted—base stations to improve the quality of mobile coverage while delivering better speeds to you.

Are there any health implications?

Every mobile phone base station, including small cells and 5G base stations, must meet Australian standards designed to protect you against electromagnetic energy exposure (EME).

EME limits are set by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) and laid out in the ARPANSA Standard, which is based on scientific research. Allowable EME levels are set well below levels at which harm to people may occur.

EME from a small cell is related to its power output—lower power output means lower radio emissions. A small cell does not always run at maximum output; base stations only transmit data when required, after which their power output is reduced.

Also, the closer a small cell is to your mobile, the less power it needs to communicate. The new 5G base stations will go into ‘sleep mode’ when there are no active users, making their power output levels even lower than current 4G base stations.

How do I know if small cells are meeting the standard?

The ACMA checks providers are complying with EME levels through audits, investigations and site inspections. We have consistently found providers are within EME limits.

Information from an EME report

What penalties apply if providers don't comply with the standard? 

If a provider has failed to meet conditions, it could be subject to court proceedings and penalties of up to $315,000 or two years’ imprisonment.

How can I find out more about small cells in my area?

The Radiofrequency National Site Archive is a community portal where you can search for details of all Australian small cells and mobile phone base stations, including:

  • the EME report for each site
  • the location of the small cell
  • provider contact details
  • community consultation information.

More information

See below for some useful links on small cells and EME: 

For more information on EME, visit our EME hub. You can also find information about mobile phone base stations and how to make a complaint.

Download a printable PDF version of this fact sheet (1 MB).

Last updated: 17 February 2019