Steady as she goes for small cells

The emphasis in the small cells sector seems to have switched from innovation and new products to dealing with implementation and deployment issues – signs of a maturing market? James Atkinson reports from the Small Cells World Summit 2015

Steady as she goes for small cells

Small Cells World Summit 2015 held in London in June was short on big announcements in terms of both new products and major operator deals. People have been predicting major small cell rollouts ‘next year’ for the past few years, so perhaps this time around everyone is being a bit more realistic.

The Small Cell Forum (SCF), which organises the conference and exhibition, kicked things off by unveiling its Release 5.1, which largely concentrates on virtualisation. The Forum is trying to ensure small cell virtualisation develops using open standards and it has come up with a virtualised version of its functional application platform interface based on a MAC/PHY split (to be known as nFAPI).

Looking ahead, the SCF said we can expect further work on SON and HetNets with a major release on the latter expected in 2016. The SCF also announced a shift in emphasis in its remit from just promoting small cell adoption towards a wider goal of helping operators accelerate the delivery of integrated HetNets.

It’s a move likely to be enthusiastically endorsed by Nokia Networks. Andy Burrell, head of NPO marketing at Nokia, says: ‘We provide a dedicated Services for HetNets solution, because MNOs need a specific service offering due to the complexities involved. We act as a trusted partner for the operator, because we have the full infrastructure portfolio and are not biased towards any particular technology.’

Stephane Daeuble, head of small cells/HetNet product marketing at Nokia, explains: ‘Our small cells have all the same features as our macro ones; the key feature is that they also have the same capacity, so they can support 840 simultaneous users.’

This might sound like overkill to many, but Daeuble points to a recent China Mobile deployment at the 2015 Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai in April, where Nokia deployed 20 nodes and recorded 588 active users per Flexi-Zone. Says Daeuble: ‘Other vendors would have needed 160 nodes to support that number simultaneously.’

In terms of operator take-up of small cells, Daeuble says Nokia has 97 small cell customers. ‘We are now seeing significant traction, and there were a lot of RFQs in 2014 and 2015.’

Cellular and Wi-Fi
Alcatel-Lucent was talking about its Wireless Unified Networks solution, which uses cellular to boost Wi-Fi performance and unlicensed spectrum to enhance cellular performance. These separate solutions can be used in isolation or combined.

Tristan Barraud de Lagerie, wireless product marketing manager at Alcatel-Lucent (A-L), explains that the Wi-Fi boost combines the Wi-Fi downlink with the generally underused 3G/4G cellular uplink to enhance throughput by up to 30% and increase the cell range by a factor of two.

To do this, mobile devices need a software upgrade, as does the network, to enable the blending of Wi-Fi and cellular. The cellular boost combines cellular and Wi-Fi spectrum to enhance downlink performance. Once standards are in place, A-L plans to introduce LTE-U and Licensed Assist Access (LAA) capable small cells.

UK software firm Quortus popped up in two contexts at the show. First, it has worked with Deltenna Ltd to combine its ECX Tactical software with Deltenna Ltd’s LittleWolf eNodeB, a 4G-radio hardware platform. The ‘system on a chip’ solution is built on a Cavium chipset.

The solution uses meshing techniques to create a private cellular 4G ‘bubble’ with specialised features for the public safety and first responder market, including multicast/broadcast, in-session mobility, relay-station functionality and ad-hoc meshing. The solution is designed for convoy scenarios, but can also be used to create a static mesh network to provide coverage in rural and remote areas.

Says CEO Andy Odgers: ‘It is designed for high-mobility users and is based on our 4G core with enhancements. It provides unified independent access to communications in a rapidly changing context. It’s a bring-your-own network solution.’

At the Cisco stand, Quortus was also involved in a demonstration using enterprise small cells with controller-based architecture and service integration. The demo involved a typical enterprise small cell deployment with two 4G cells operating in the 2.6GHz band connected via PoE and managed by a Cisco 80788 controller.

A full EPC runs behind this managed by a Cisco AS500 gateway, and behind this is an IMS core, HSS and voice over LTE service provided by Quortus. Added to this is a Cisco unified access core manager, plus voicemail and a one-rack unit server with everything on it.

This provides a single, virtualised service that is run like a private network, and it can be linked to a wider macro network. Users can register their devices in the enterprise building and get a VoLTE and SMS service over 4G.

On the antenna front, MobileMark displayed a new panel antenna for small cells, along with its range of cellular, LTE, Wi-Fi M2M antenna range, and its specialist antennas targeting public safety, GPS fleet management, military and RFID tracking.

Ireland’s Alpha Wireless showcased its latest small cell product in the shape of the ultra-compact AW3388 OMNI antenna for small cells applications, which supports 2×2 MIMO and maintains RF performance across the entire frequency band of 1710-2690MHz.

Indoor small cells
In terms of small cell deployments, there is no doubt that indoor is largely where it is happening. Elias Aravantinos, principal analyst at ACG Research, told Wireless: ‘Operators are focused on indoor because they might make some money there. The feeling is that they cannot afford to run two RFIs at the same time, so it’s indoor first, then outdoor. Outdoor deployments are more of a headache as there are many issues to overcome, so they are taking a “let’s wait” approach to that.’

That’s all very well for the large OEMs who can afford to wait, but how are the independent indoor small cell providers doing? California-based SpiderCloud seems to be doing just fine having been taken up by Vodafone UK and Netherlands, Avea in Turkey and Verizon in the US among others. In April, it announced that Mexican operators América Móvil and Telcel would also be marketing its dual-band 3G/LTE and LTE/LTE system with 200 Sectors.

It has also been taken up by Cisco, which will sell its products as well as developing a snap-on SpiderCloud module for its Aironet 3600/3700 Wi-Fi access points. Art King, marketing manager/business development manager, at SpiderCloud, tells Wireless: ‘The link-up with Cisco is a very significant event for us as it helps us scale up, and for Cisco it fills a gap in its product line that its Ubiquisys line does not cover.’

King says SpiderCloud’s ambition is to provide mobile versions of the full enterprise communication offering, or at least to add enhanced services beyond simply providing good indoor cellular coverage, such as guest Wi-Fi management and replacing desk phones with cellular.

Airvana has also had a major fillip recently, with US regional operator Nex-Tech Wireless endorsing its OneCell Cloud RAN (C-RAN) small cell system after deploying it in the 7,600-seat Gross Coliseum at Fort Hays State University (FHSU) in Hays, Kansas.

The figures speak for themselves, with peak 66Mbps download speeds achieved consistently throughout the Coliseum (in a 10MHz LTE channel); 99.7% connection setup success rate, 0.5% connection drop rate and 100% macro handover success rate. The system took nine weeks to install.

Josh Adelson, director of product marketing at Airvana, tells Wireless that its OneCell avoids the issue of small cell signal overlap, which creates interference issues by separating out the baseband processing and centralising it leaving the radio function in a separate unit. The company argues this has many advantages, as it creates a single cell rather than many individual cells; a virtualised single cell means no border interference and no handover issues. ‘And we can support up to four operators,’ says Adelson.

Deployment challenge
The indoor market is clearly beginning to stir, but small cells still have a long way to go, Nick Johnson, CTO at ip.access, tells Wireless. ‘The action is at the large building end at the moment and we can’t call 10 million units shipped a success. Small cells sales have got to be the same order of magnitude as Wi-Fi, with tens of millions being shipped.’

In Johnson’s view the chief hold-up to growth is that operators are still seeing small cells as part of their macro network strategy and that means growth ‘will be small and painful – and that doesn’t sustain an industry’.

‘We don’t have to reinvent deployment. Let’s do it like Wi-Fi and let the enterprise do the work. We need to provide a click-to-deploy service to operators and a solo operator service is not a scalable way of doing it – it needs to be a multi-operator service,’ he argues.

Johnson advocates implementing MOCN (multi-operator core network) and neutral hosting for small cells (see his article on Wireless here for more details). ‘There is a very clear opportunity for operators here using shared access licensing models,’ he says.

Operator assistance
Justin Paul, head of OSS marketing at Amdocs, took up the SCF’s HetNet theme, and spoke about the new partner programme it is initiating to help operators manage HetNet deployments. The first five partners are: ip.access, Israeli firm GoNet Sytems, Radwin, Ranplan and GE, a long term partner of Amdocs in graphical information and mapping.

Paul says: ‘The problem for operators is that if they do not manage the design and rollout of their projects they incur additional costs. We are looking at providing a 25% reduction in implementation costs of small cell rollout. If you take an average cost of $600 per small cell, that adds up if you are deploying thousands of them.’

He notes that small cell rollout has not taken off as much as everyone had hoped. One of the issues holding it back is ensuring quality control if third parties are used. ‘As an operator, how do you know what is going on in terms of quality and who did what?’

What’s needed, according to Paul, is a way to track the SLAs and the work going on to give visibility and control back to the operators employing different third-party companies. The idea is to go in to see operators, find out their particular challenges, and then have well-established and qualified partners on hand to address their specific challenges, be it planning, network design, small cell installation, Wi-Fi access or backhaul.

‘Service providers may not be asking for this service today,’ says Paul, ‘but they have tested the technology and understand the economics of small cells and HetNets. The problem for them is that there are too many things to do and a lot of challenges to overcome, so we are trying to pre-empt this and have solutions ready for them.’

Wireless backhaul
If you are an independent company in the wireless backhaul space you will have had to grit your teeth somewhat over the past few years unless you’ve been able to grab a slice of the macro cell wireless backhaul market or can provide access technology as well.

Despite this, analyst Elias Aravantinos observes: ‘The one good thing in the urban small cell space is that there’s a lot of backhaul trials. Traditional microwave and V-Band are the winning technologies at the moment, although V-Band is more for capacity, which isn’t really needed yet.’

Certainly, most of the small cell wireless backhaul vendors Wireless spoke to said that RFPs and RFQs have picked up considerably, and for large rollouts too. Stuart Broome, chief sales and marketing officer at Fastback Networks, told Wireless that most of the RFPs he was seeing were no longer vague, ‘how much would it cost to backhaul 1,000 small cells’, but very specific numbers that appear to be connected to actual geographic locations, so this bodes well.

Nonetheless, actual urban small cell deployments remain tiny. Dr John Naylon, CTO at UK microwave small cell/backhaul provider CBNL (Cambridge Broadband Networks Ltd), says: ‘We still see that urban small cells are practically non-existent in terms of volume. Sure, the indoor enterprise space is taking off, but the classic urban play is quiet.’

Naylon posited the provocative thought that if urban small cells do not take off until 2018-19 they may crash into the early deployment of 5G in 2019-20. ‘This poses the question of whether 4G urban small cells will miss the urban window. Most small cell players are in the indoor market as well as outdoor, so they may be okay.’

His thinking here is that 5G is going to be designed from the ground up to incorporate small cells as integral to its architecture in the way 3G wasn’t at all and 4G wasn’t really.

‘With small cells designed in from the ground up for 5G, that becomes a powerfully attractive proposition, so it may cause operators to hold off from deploying 3G and 4G small cells. Why develop a whole new competence to deploy small cells if you don’t really need to until 5G comes along?’ he asks.

CBNL looks like being able to weather the continuing urban small cell hiatus as around 50% of its revenue is in macro cell wireless backhaul and 50% in enterprise access.

Steve Greaves, CEO of CCS (Cambridge Communication Systems), agrees that things are moving slowly, but argues that trials are now moving to genuine rollouts. CCS has been particularly successful in China with its multipoint to multipoint (MPTMP) backhaul solution, and has links to manufacturing of small cells for mobile infrastructure heavyweights ZTE and Huawei.

‘They are ramping up production,’ he says, ‘and we are seeing a lot more RFPs and RFIs, so things are moving and we are looking at contracts for tens of thousands of small cells in these orders. Asia and the US are the key regions at the moment and we will see a ramp up later this year and into next year,’ he predicts confidently.

‘The issue I see is the infrastructure; how do you get the street furniture?’ he asks. ‘Two years ago the MNOs’ worry was the technology, now it is: how do I get it all out there? What partners do I use? How does it interact with the core network? The problem is no one has done a big rollout, so someone has to do it to prove it!’ says Greaves.

The small cells space is something of a mixed bag commercially at the moment. Indoor is on the edge of taking off as the operators wake up to the opportunity, although a faster and more efficient go-to-market proposition needs to evolve using third parties and neutral hosting with multi-operator solutions.

Urban outdoor is going to continue to be painfully slow in many regions, but if wireless backhaul vendors are anything to go by there are some genuinely large opportunities beginning to nudge over the horizon.

Operators have long been taxed with poor performance in rural and remote areas, but things may change here too, with cheaper small cells solutions offering a way forward.




Leave a Comment