SpiderCloud, the independent standalone small cell provider, has been heavily involved in developing the MulteFire standard, which enables 4G LTE technology to be used in unlicensed spectrum, but without the need for any licensed LTE anchor spectrum.
Speaking to Wireless at Small Cells World Summit 2016 (9-12 May), Art King, director of enterprise services and technologies at SpiderCloud (pictured), said: ‘The impetus for LTE-U and LAA was added extra downlink capacity, as mobile networks are asymmetric and geared to the download. Those options are an attempt to add in another piece of spectrum for the downlink, which is essentially free.
‘The trigger that sent Qualcomm on the quest for MulteFire is that someone looked at it and said if you naturally extend this and add uplink technology you no longer need licensed anchor spectrum anymore.’
King added that when it comes to LWA, the operator community is concerned about having to build a whole new Wi-Fi back end for authentication, authorisation, and accounting (AAA) and so operators prefer LTE-U or LAA as the backend is already built.
‘At the supplier level we assume that when we deploy the chipset the eggheads will have figured it all out. Our Qualcomm chips are software programmable so glitches can be ironed out easily enough,’ said King.
Catalysing the market
King sees MulteFire as a way to catalyse the indoor coverage market for enterprises, as it overcomes the multi-operator problem. ‘You have one box with multiple backhaul to get back to each MNO core for subscribers, working off one antenna at the top. So for us, one small cell would support everybody.
‘If MulteFire was evenly deployed around the world and it was on all handsets you could roam into any enterprise,’ he argued. ‘The enterprise buys the hardware and the connections to the MNOs’ cores. If the service is good people will use more data; and it is provable that when performance is better people consume more.’
That leaves the question of how do you create a fair playing field for each operator in terms of radio access. King believes you can create an end-to-end fairness mechanism inside the infrastructure itself to ensure fair access to the unlicensed spectrum within the building.
He points out that MOCN (mobile operator core network) is about raw connectivity and the solution is likely to be an enhancement of this approach. He points out that in some large countries like Canada operators share spectrum and a network to make the costs viable, across such a large geography.
‘MulteFire is the same kind of idea, but in a very different place as it is about sharing low power, unlicensed spectrum - it is an indoor multi-operator play. Small cells have addressed the needs for one operator, but we can now address the needs for a number of operators – with the obvious proviso that the handset makers include a MulteFire radio,’ said King.
One of the major hindrances to deploying cellular small cells indoors has been operator concern over how it might affect their macro networks, and not trusting third party hosts and installers to get it right.
MulteFire will make that easier, although King said that doesn’t eliminate the need for good RF design in the first place. ‘You need good front end design still, but you can then use something like a Wi-Fi installation crew to come in pull cables and put up the radios – you don’t need highly skilled RF crews. You then send in skilled DAS crews to do the testing and commissioning.’
King said this kind of scenario is being seen already in the US, where a lot of skilled DAS engineers are reaching out to the likes of Cisco to offer their skill set for the design and commissioning of small cells. They also have the connections to RF designers, consultants and to mobile operators that Wi-Fi crews do not.
MulteFire is currently going through the specification process with the Radio Working Group handling the uplink protocols for the transmission side; and the End-to-End Working Group working on the architectural specifications. This is likely to take until the end of the year.
‘Then chipsets need to be designed and products built,’ pointed out King. ‘I think there are enough operators who see the promise of this, so it won’t be hard to get a few lined up for trials, although it will probably be 2017 before that starts. But there is a huge amount of merit for the enterprise customers in this solution.’
King added that he believes DAS has a long and healthy life ahead of it for larger venues. But MulteFire opens up the neutral host market that industry is having difficulties addressing today. ‘The expectation for good, available signal everywhere you go is putting a lot of demand on operators,’ he observed.
The third utility
‘Connectivity is becoming the third utility after power and water,’ he continued, ‘and MulteFire could be the main solution for delivering it. We are already seeing leasing agents go into a building and say: I don’t see five bars of signal on my phone – my customer isn’t coming here. And it is the same for conference venues and hotel event hosting.’
King said that the next step is for operators to put pressure on device vendors to install MulteFire into their handsets. If Apple and Samsung support MulteFire in 5GHz, the rest are likely to follow.
He notes that there are regional variations, however. Verizon in the US is installing small cells in enterprises – and crucially is willing to pay for it. ‘BYOD is not that prevalent in big US corporations,’ explained King, ‘so the majority of employee phones are on one operator’s network. So, US operators have a long list of corporate customers with poor coverage who want that fixed.
‘In Europe, Vodafone is installing SpiderCloud small cell systems in the UK and Netherlands. The next step into the future is how to transition the capital costs over to the enterprises that don’t meet the operator investment threshold. Those enterprises want exactly the same thing as the big corporates and they have the cheque books.’
Finally, King said that SpiderCloud is seeing more tangible evidence of MNOs relaxing their attitudes to enterprises buying and installing small cells. ‘They see that there isn’t enough capital and resource to do it all themselves, so they are easing up on the control freakery.’ And that should be good news for the small cells side of the industry.