The wireless industry is looking relatively buoyant at the moment compared with other sectors, but the tough economic climate continues to make itself felt. Many of the announcements from the big RAN vendors centred on products and solutions designed to help mobile carriers optimise network capacity, make network management easier and reduce operating costs.
New macro technology announcements were scarce on the ground. Instead, small cells, both for LTE and Wi-Fi, dominated the new product roll call. There were further developments in Single RAN architecture for multi-technology platforms, self-organising networks (SON) and active antenna systems – all designed to extract maximum capacity from scarce spectrum and make the management of the networks more efficient and easier through automation.
Kris Szaniawski, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media comments: ‘The new products were largely about the big five vendors infilling gaps in their portfolios, such as small cells, although that won’t really pick up commercially until 2013, and integrating Wi-Fi into macro networks. Self-organising networks and active antennas are ongoing from last year.
‘Generally speaking, there was not a lot of new technology being displayed, but what was puzzling to us was why everyone was so upbeat, as there haven’t been a large number of new contracts announced. But we think what’s been happening is that the major RAN vendors are getting a lot of work enhancing existing networks with GSM and HSPA+, but they haven’t been shouting about it.’
Szaniawski adds: ‘The sense I got was that there isn’t a big difference in technology between the main vendors. I don’t think there is a strong leader in the market in terms of technological innovation. How networks handle the backhaul, especially of small cells, is quite a hot topic and there seem to be a lot of start ups in that space. But to make small cells efficient you need to pre-integrate the backhaul – that presumes that they’ll get bought up or be chosen as a partner.’
Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) and the continuing evolution of its Liquid Net concept proved worthy of note. NSN’s Thorsten Robrecht, head of NWS product management network systems, told Wireless: ‘Liquid Net is the DNA of our activities. Everything we are doing on products and the operations around it is following this principle and the principle of Liquid Net is to unleash the capacity inside the network. It’s about how we make better use of the capacity that is already there, what type of new products will amend it and how we bring the flexibility that will make the best use of the network.’
Ovum principal analyst Daryl Schoolar observes: ‘NSN unveiled a tight portfolio around the FlexiZone small cell architecture. It is using technology from Motorola, which it bought last year. It has developed an interesting way to go about managing small cells by inserting a controller between the small cell and macro networks, which allows the macro network to see 100 small cell APs as one base station. That makes it much easier to manage and deal with some of the backhaul, so that was pretty interesting.’
Szaniawski adds that he thought NSN had a good show with some impressive ideas and demonstrations in the customer experience management (CEM) area. ‘They showed how a mobile carrier’s operation, marketing or engineering team could access data on a tablet to see if there was a problem and how it was affecting their area of the business. They can drill right down to the individual device – a lot of it is around the software and tools you can use to get more out of the existing network.’
Despite being unveiled last year, Alcatel-Lucent’s innovative lightRadio cube continued to impress and this year it has integrated Wi-Fi into the cube. ‘Bell Labs’ [Alcatel-Lucent’s R&D arm] briefing on updates to the lightRadio was interesting. It will also be interesting to see what Ericsson will do in that space,’ says Szaniawski.
‘Mobile operators think Alcatel-Lucent is doing well on LTE and small cells, but then it has been doing it longer than other infrastructure vendors,’ Schoolar says. ‘Alcatel-Lucent has been pushing on both fronts and trying to make up ground around 3G where it has been lagging behind its rivals. So, small cells are a way for it to get into operators where it isn’t the 2G or 3G incumbent.’
Schoolar adds that Samsung is in a similar position to Alcatel-Lucent. ‘Neither firm is strong in 3G, so they are trying to lead on LTE and small cell technology. Their argument to the network operators is: we are so much better at LTE, it is better to invest with us and transition over your 2G and 3G. Samsung does have small cell technology and it has won contracts for the company where it is not the incumbent macro supplier, such as with KDDI in Japan and Sprint in the US.’
That seems to chime with Samsung’s stated ambitions. IP Hong, VP head of marketing group for Samsung Telecom Systems – business, told Wireless: ‘We estimate that Samsung is already a top three LTE system vendor this year, but our aim is to be a top three wireless infrastructure vendor by 2015.’
Szaniawski feels that while the Chinese RAN vendors Huawei and ZTE have put pressure on the market over the last few years in terms of price, there is more confidence among the traditional players now. ‘There is still heavy price competition, but this has got to more of
a level playing field I think,’ he says.
ZTE had an unusually quiet year at MWC in terms of infrastructure announcements, preferring to concentrate on the mobile device side. Huawei, on the other hand, unveiled a plethora of new products, including its opening salvo on the small cell front – the AtomCell – all part of its Single RAN platform designed to allow multiple radio standards to be run out of one box. Schoolar comments: ‘Huawei’s AtomCell integrates GSM, UMTS and LTE, but not Wi-Fi yet. It looked like it showed some promise, but more work needs to be done on their part to prove their vision.’
Ericsson had a huge range of equipment on display in its hall and announced new products in the shape of a SON optimisation manager, pico base station with integrated Wi-Fi and an indoor pico gateway. Prior to the Congress it announced it is to buy Canadian Wi-Fi specialist BelAir Networks – an indication of how seriously the big equipment vendors now take the operators’ demand to integrate Wi-Fi into their core networks.
Speaking at a press conference at MWC, Ericsson president and CEO Hans Vestberg said that the uptake in mobile broadband had driven strong market growth in 2011, despite a slowdown in operator spending in the fourth quarter. ‘Our early internal market data indicates that our market share in mobile network equipment grew from 32% to 38% during 2011,’ he said.
Vestberg claimed that Ericsson is the clear LTE leader, citing recent wins including contracts with e-access in Japan, Open Mobile in Latin America, and Augere in India. ‘The two fastest-growing 4G markets in the world are North America and Korea, where Ericsson is supporting rollout of 4G quickly. This gives us unparalleled insight and experience of the high-traffic demands in 4G,’ said Vestberg.
Schoolar cautions: ‘What you see at these shows is what reflects a company’s corporate culture. Ericsson does not look to be as advanced as regards small cells, Wi-Fi integration and HetNets, but it doesn’t mean that it is not. Ericsson prefers not to talk about developments until they are ready to go, so it tends to have more stuff going on behind the scenes than it is prepared to talk about. Ericsson showed some LTE demos and some LTE-A announcement around carrier aggregation.’
The development of heterogeneous networks (HetNets) – how you glue all the different technologies and wireless standards together into an integrated network – was another hot topic at MWC 2012.
Szaniawski says: ‘We may see different approaches to how HetNets are managed. Ericsson is the most aggressive at trying to persuade operators to buy the same kit from a single vendor from macro down to pico cell. NSN, on the other hand, is more comfortable with operators taking a multi-vendor approach.’
That certainly chimes with Vestberg’s view. He said that network capacity can be increased by improving the macro layer by upgrading the functionality of the existing base stations; densifying the macro layer by increasing the number of cells; and adding small cells as a complement to the macro layer.
Vestberg argued that the best possible solution, and the approach adopted by Ericsson, is to combine all three into one network, as this delivers the same services with half the spectrum and with throughput gains of 2-10 times compared to using separate vendors for the macro and the small cell layer. In addition, he said that Ericsson’s solution halves the total cost of ownership for the small cell layer.
Szaniawski notes that energy efficiency wasn’t a strong theme at this year’s MWC in comparison to previous years and that it seems to have slightly dropped off the marketing map. ‘But I think a lot of the big vendors are still quietly doing some good work in this area. Bell Labs and others for example are involved in an open innovation forum called Green Touch.
‘NSN is also trying to build up more energy management business as part of its managed services portfolio and has some good references, such as Vodacom Tanzania. Other companies are also sniffing around this space, including IBM, which I think announced an interesting deal with Bharti Infratel last year,’ says Szaniawski.