Small cells as a concept have been discussed for several years but only now are operators, enterprises and venue owners deploying the technology. Part of the reason behind that is the established development curve of new technology introduction, while other factors include the market conditions providers face, along with the extent to which LTE has been deployed in specific markets.
‘We’ve been talking about the technology for a couple of years and, while some very public deployments have occurred in some regions, I see some operators starting their deployments now,' says Gordon Mansfield, the chairman of the Small Cell Forum, who is one of the earliest to deploy small cells in his other role as associate vice president of small cell solutions at US operator AT&T.
‘In North America, every national operator has publicly stated that by the end of 2013 they have at least some degree of [small cell] trialling. Beyond North America, Asia in general has used various types of small cell technology and that will continue to grow. I certainly see trial activity spinning up in Europe.’
One example of that is in France, where mobile operator SFR is in an intense price war in the LTE market with new market entrant, Iliad’s Free brand. The operator markets its femtocells as a core part of its ‘most complete network’ marketing programme and launched a commercially successful triple-play DSL/VoIP/TV gateway integrated with a femtocell.
SFR has been offering femtocells to customers for around two years. Customers pay €49, which is refunded when the unit is activated. SFR has shipped more than 200,000 units so far, claims its supplier NEC.
Capacity and cost
The femtocell example is interesting because it illustrates how in some markets – especially those that are experiencing price wars – operators are seeking to differentiate themselves on the quality of their network. Small cells are set to have a critical role in enabling that.
Martin Guthrie, the head of business development EMEA for small cells at NEC Europe, claims cost efficiency in addition to improved capacity are influencing factors on small cell deployment. ‘A number of operators want to innovate and it is those where we’ve seen the early adoption, but the driver is not so much coverage as capacity,’ he says.
‘To add capacity in a macro environment is more and more expensive and technically more difficult so small cells, especially indoor small cells, allow offload for considerably less cost than augmenting the macro cell network.’
Yet, small cells aren’t just being deployed to take strain off the macrocell network. They are also being deployed as a multi-technology framework to support LTE, 3G and Wi-Fi networks. The advantages are evident because much of the cost of deploying a small cell is in the siting of the actual box.
In terms of the costs associated with gaining access rights, agreeing the real estate arrangements and getting a power supply or access to backhaul installed, the costs of adding extra technology to enable a small cell to be multimodal is incremental.
‘It’s a matter for use case for the box itself,’ says Todd Mersch, the general manager for software solutions and products at Radisys, which provides the protocol stack to go inside the small cell box.
‘We’re seeing multi-technology boxes in deployments in South Korea right now. These are focused on indoor access projects within denser urban areas such as Gangnam in Seoul. Right now the integration isn’t seamless from a chipset point of view, but that might change as the volumes rise and chip makers become more interested in creating a bigger chipset.’
In addition to adopting multiple technologies within their small cell deployments, providers are assessing how to architect their small cell footprints. Julius Robson, wireless technology specialist at backhaul provider CBNL, sees growing demand for small cells in both indoor and outdoor situations.
He advocates a multipoint architecture for ease of deployment and operational flexibility in comparison with point-to-point architectures. ‘Multipoint means you [can] manage your own spectrum and decide which to use, where and when,’ he explains. ‘That allows you to be more cost effective.’
It will also enable operators to utilise spectrum more efficiently. ‘Spectrum will provide us with some respite from the capacity crunch but ultimately it won’t be enough and densification is a certainty, there is no doubt about that,’ adds Robson. ‘It’s not an if, but a when question. Operators have the technologies and what we’re seeing is the need to reach a certain [capability] in the market and microcells are the best option for achieving that.’
The installed base of LTE is starting to demonstrate a direct link with small cell deployment. ‘It’s fairly well acknowledged by operators that it’s much easier to use small cells to augment higher density LTE environments such as city centres,’ acknowledges Guthrie. ‘We’ll see metro announcements on the LTE side this year because it’s relatively straightforward to deploy small cells.’
Robin Kent, director of European operations at Adax Europe, also sees the link with LTE deployment. ‘We’ll see mainstream deployment in 2014 or 2015, but it is related to the deployment of LTE,’ he says. “What is happening now and will happen more this year and next is that operators, users and enterprise users will see that LTE isn’t just a core technology for mobile operators, it’s a great framework for a number of different applications – whether in campuses or for rural markets.’
Mansfield agrees: ‘If you follow where LTE migrations have happened already, that’s where I see the small cell deployment,’ he adds. ‘You’ll see the broadest deployments in countries that have deployed LTE.’
It’s easy to gain the impression with the large US and South Korean deployments that small cells have entered the mainstream, but Shayan Sanyal, the chief commercial officer of Bluwan, sounds a note of caution. ‘I’m not sure we’re quite at the tipping point yet; we’re on the verge of the tipping point but we’re still in this hyperbolic curve,’ he says.
‘It is very dependent on which region – some operators are more ahead than in others. The small cells big boom isn’t going to happen in 2014, small cells won’t hit critical mass until 2015.’