The term ‘small cell’ is widely used to describe the traditional pico/micro base stations as well as the next generation type of small cell designed to complement the macro network and realize improved performances at the cell edges, indoor, and in high traffic areas. While the industry seems to have embraced the term, the meaning varies widely across the ecosystem.
At a high level, we can divide the market into three segments: Residential, SMB/Enterprise, and Public Access.
The residential femto cells have been around since 2007 and have primarily been used to support voice coverage. Success has been limited due to both business model challenges and technical need – macro network for the most part has been sufficient for basic voice coverage.
The next logical step for the leaders in the residential femto cell segment was to scale the RF power and processing capabilities to support more users for the enterprise use case. While WiFi has successfully penetrated this portion, enterprise femto cells have not had the same success. This is a segment, however, that has potential not only for voice but also for data. There is a lot of activity in this segment.
When it comes to the public access use case, we divide this segment into traditional and evolved small cells. The traditional micros/pico small cells have been around for some time – primarily used for voice fill-ins.
The evolved small cells – some call these metro cells – some call them advanced small cells – are the new generation compact, light weight, low power nodes that will be used to complement the macro network and eventually play a crucial role in the heterogeneous network.
In summary, some small cell markets have been around for some time while some are just getting started. There are different drivers, solutions, vendors, semi-conductor suppliers depending upon the application. There are different challenges to move the market forward both operationally and technically and barriers to entry will be different. Most importantly, the market sizes are different and there are vastly different opportunities as we look forward.