Overall small cell trial activity remains high and vendors continue to optimize their solutions, even though commercial small cell networks deployed by service providers in metro areas and enterprises are happening at a slower pace than expected. Recently, we have seen some interesting announcements that provide hope that significant commercial small cell deployments will be a reality in the next couple of years.
1) Several vendors have responded to some of the pain points service providers felt with the initial low-power solutions. These initial solutions resulted in performance degradation and coordination challenges when moving from the macro to the small cell.
Ericsson and Nokia Solutions and Networks (NSN) have recently launched products that will retain much of the performance/ functions/features/capacity when moving between the high- and low-power cells. Ericsson’s indoor solution leverages the baseband and radio from its RBS6000 portfolio while NSN’s recently-launched indoor and outdoor products use new chipsets from the same family as its macro products and the BBU fits into a 5 kg product. In addition to Ericsson and NSN, Huawei’s LampSite family, announced in 1H13 and currently in pre-commercial deployments, can leverage the BBU of macro in its low power indoor system.
Even though these companies took different approaches – Ericsson separating the BBU, radio, and antennas focusing on indoor deployments, while NSN consolidated everything into one unit providing macro parity for both outdoor and indoor small cells – the end result of sharing code between the high- and low-power systems includes:
- Improved performance parity between macro and small cell, scale, efficiency, and time-to-market advantages as new features and code are released.
- More importantly, tighter coordination between macro and small cell will reduce interference and improve the overall performance.
In other words, there are clear indicators that the top RAN players and service providers believe that retaining much of the macro features/functions/capacity/performance in the low power cell is the preferred strategy. Taking into account that NSN plans to deliver macro/small cell parity for both the outdoor and indoor use cases, it will be interesting to see if the service providers will push more vendors to enhance their outdoor offerings.
2) There is an increased focus on low-power management. System-on-chips targeting indoor deployments are now focusing on maximizing power efficiency:
• TI introduced a scalable low-power SoC earlier in the year targeting indoor and Pico deployments.
• Ericsson’s new “Radio Dot System” has a power budget small enough to be powered with PoE.
• SpiderCloud’s recently-launched SCRN-310 uses Broadcom’s chipset and can power a dual mode 3G/LTE product using PoE.
3) There are signs that there is more attention being focused on solving the deployment challenges of large scale indoor and outdoor small cells. The Small Cell Forum has released several new working papers, and Alcatel-Lucent recently announced a new initiative that will enable service providers to accelerate the installation of outdoor low-power cells. Alcatel-Lucent’s new initiative will work by gaining improved visibility and access to physical assets needed for deployment including light posts, bus stops, buildings, and other street furniture. Admittedly, it will be challenging to build a database that incorporates a large portion of the physical usable assets in various municipalities, countries, and regions while at the same time ensuring that the furniture are in the proximity of the right location from a traffic congestion perspective. It will be interesting to see how the program will scale in the early adopter LTE markets as well as other key geographic regions and if this program will help service providers accelerate the deployment of outdoor small cells.
Given that the largest contributor to TCO is not the equipment itself, the business case challenges with small cells are well known at this point when comparing to the ROI for service providers focusing initially on outdoor macros. But as the inter-site distance of the macros continues to shrink and the focus shifts from outdoor coverage to differentiating the performance in high traffic outdoor and indoor locations, the case for small cells will sooner or later not only make sense from a spatial efficiency perspective but with the right solutions and capabilities small cells can also become a realistic part of the heterogeneous network (HetNet) toolbox and eventually provide a compelling business case.