There was definitely a buzz around the show this year which attracted 108,000 visitors. The scope continues to expand, covering a huge ecosystem from connected cars, identity verification, virtual reality and diverse Apps far beyond its roots in radio technology. The show floor is busy from early doors on Monday through close of play on Thursday afternoon. We report with our focus picking out those aspects of most relevance to the Small Cell industry.
It's not about the G’s
So said John Stankey, now CEO of AT&T Entertainment Group in his keynote, but you wouldn’t think it by the headline features from major vendors. He was referring to 5G and Gigabit speeds, and instead urged diversification into content (c.f. ATT TimeWarner acquisition) rather than simply network expansion.
This differed from the key themes at the show (5G, Gigabit and IoT), where many vendors positioned their 4G technology to be “on the path towards 5G”, promoting shorter term investments (i.e. keep spending money now) while waiting for 5G to arrive in 5-10 years.
The higher speeds on show were quite real. Qualcomm and ATT had live demonstrations augmenting LTE with LAA, combining 20MHz licenced LTE with 3x20MHz unlicensed in the 5GHz band to achieve 1Gbps throughput. Qualcomm have both small cell and handset prototype boards which will make it into commercial products before the year end. The relatively short range of 5GHz makes this highly suitable for indoor small cells. Think of this as peak burst bandwidth when you need it. The live demos were particularly impressive given the immense number of Wi-Fi hotspots in use nearby on the exhibition floor.
I also witnessed a live demo of Wi-Gig, the Wi-Fi radio at 60GHz, known as 802.11ad. Chipset vendor Peraso showed a laptop dongle happily communicating with a prototype access point at 1.8Gbps, enabling super fast data sync of your photos, videos and podcasts from home or in a shop kiosk. An initial application might be to side load content prior to the daily commute/flight for data that isn’t quite so urgent. Think of it like Bluetooth on (lots of) steroids. With newly released and lightly licenced 60GHz spectrum increasing the useful bands to potentially as much as 14GHz overall, very short range indoor capacity shouldn’t be an issue. But at these frequencies it certainly won't go through walls or even your hand and has to find an alternative path.
From a small cell perspective, I thought this was the most exciting topic at the show.
CBRS uses standard LTE at 3.5GHz (Band 48) with spectrum allocated centrally on demand for a minimal fee. Oren Binder of the CBRS Alliance was very upbeat, announcing that all four major US operators have just joined, growing their membership from 6 last year to 37 today.
Since you don’t need operator approval to run a standalone CBRS network, he expects to see many private cellular networks appear from the end of this year serving many different applications - industrial campuses, hospitals, hospitality could all have their own systems compatible with fairly mainstream smartphones.
I saw quite a few “CBRS Ready” small cells, from SpiderCloud to Accelleran. It’s a relatively simple engineering task to adapt products to use this frequency band and interwork with the central spectrum allocations server database. ip.access told me one of the key features of their latest LTE products is the ability to adapt to new spectrum bands, which can be done from order to delivery in as little as 8 weeks. It's TD-LTE so needs some source for timing synchronisation such as GPS.
There are a variety of software vendors offering compact standalone IMS Core network software which would facilitate standalone CBRS networks in a variety of configurations. Quortus even offer to rent a slice of IMS from the cloud on a pay-per-usage basis and had different applications visible on many stands.
There seems to be a growing acceptance from DAS vendors that DAS complemented by Small Cells can provide a low cost neutral host solution. While some neutral host small cell architectures would be even cheaper (e.g. MOCN), many operators still prefer to retain their own spectrum hence mandate separate basestations. Using small cells helps reduce overall cost.
Zinwave is one of the first to announce trials of their product to handle CRBS at the 3.5GHz band (most DAS were designed to cater for existing cellular spectrum up to about 2.7GHz – theirs will soon handle anything up to 6 GHz). A further indication of their commitment is that they have joined both the CBRS Alliance as well as WIN (Wireless Innovation Forum).
Zyxel introduced ZoneDAS (shown below), offering low cost for smaller buildings. It’s a relatively compact unit with 4 RF input ports and 8 CAT5 cable outputs to radio heads that simulcast the signal. It’s analog so has very low delay. It can support MIMO by sharing two ports. Aimed at small hotels/motels and similar, this would be very cost effective provided that it is driven by small cells rather than higher cost basestations. Nextivity launched a similar product last September called Quatra.
SOLID went one further and have added “RAX” to their GENESIS inbuilding DAS portfolio. Keen to call this a “signal source” rather than a small cell, this rack of LTE small cell modules sports S1 interfaces for direct interconnection with each host network operator. It efficiently provides direct digital RF feeds into the DAS. Their vision is that the building owner would pay for the entire system leaving network operators to just remotely configure and light it up. A 24 sector configuration could handle up to 3,000 concurrent users, so around 120 per sector. I would expect their difficulty will be gaining approval to connect from all four network operators, since there is a large one-off non-recurring cost to test and integrate any new RAN equipment vendor. It's unclear to me if the signal sources/small cells were developed in-house or integrated from a partner - there are plenty of South Korean vendors with the capability to do so and SOLID is a South Korean company - which could accelerate that approval.
Powering DAS from approved Small Cell vendors should save cost and complexity. I’ve even heard that SpiderCloud has been used to do that in some multi-operator scenarios, saving the cost of a full sized macro basestation.
Elsewhere, Commscope were displaying a range of Metrocell street furniture, incorporating street cabinets with pole antennas. Kathrein reported good take-up of their manhole cover antenna with hundreds now deployed in streets in Switzerland and other countries.
Neutral Host Small Cells
Another way to provide multi-operator service is to build a small cell with four radios, one for each network.
Huawei Lampsite 3.0 is a distributed radio system which supports four radio heads per remote node, and adds the capability to feed the system from an external basestation (which could be a Nokia or Ericsson), thus making it more like a multi-operator DAS solution. There is also a “Lite” version for individual shops or restaurants.
Nokia's Jane Rygaard told me that their Flexi-Zone controller software has now been "virtualised" and can be configured to support up to three different operators per RF head. Ericsson's Martin Ljungberg notes ongoing development of their Radio Dot which could easily be configured to support two independent network operators.
Chinese startup BaiCells has evolved enormously since last year with a huge range of both indoor and outdoor LTE products. Their neutral host small cell is similar to Huawei's except that it embeds four fully functional small cells in a single box, avoiding the need for a central controller.
Looking ahread, Cavium launched a new chip (CNF73xx) that can host four virtual small cells on a single chip, potentially reducing the cost of such a configuration. It would require each operator to approve the same shared system. Other configurations, such as 3G/4G multi band, MIMO and/or carrier aggregation are also possible.
ip.access encourage operators to share spectrum which would simplify the equipment to be installed in each building. Their VIPER2020 solution allows the same infrastructure to support new services including IoT and presence/location so should be an ideal match for CBRS.
Several small cell vendors have gone outdoors, introducing higher power weatherproof products aimed at filling coverage notspots in rural/remote areas or for firstresponder applications.
Parallel Wireless now have 2x20W units. They’re not intended to be high capacity (in terms of number of concurrent users) but offer the same high data rates shared with fewer users over a larger area and penetrate indoors. These provide both 3G and 4G service in a single unit and can even be backhauled over 4G from any nearby macrocell as we reported from our site visit to rural Wales.
Air-Lynx, a French company focused on LTE private networks for First Responder and other specialist applications have their portable tactical standalone LTE unit for instant deployment with 6 hour battery life. They added support LTE broadcast (eMBMS) to share/stream data onsite.
They’ve also expanded their range by introducing a large scale remote radio head configuration for use in railway applications (what used to be called GSM-R for railway staff). A series of fibre connected radio heads is powered from a compact central baseband unit. Railways generally have easy access to fibre along the trackside and this is more intended for internal operations (staff) than customer use.
Chinese startup Baicells has grown from a single small cell prototype last year (the Elfcell) to a wide range of indoor and outdoor (4x 2W) LTE products. Their 250 employees have been busy. They claim to be the largest supplier of Enterprise Femtocells to China Mobile today and are looking to branch out overseas. I’m told they’ve already sold products to over 150 of the very small independent cellular networks in North America but it's unclear how much of this is for trial versus live commercial use at this stage. They don't foresee regulatory/approval hurdles in North America because they are RAN only.
ip.access now also offer outdoor rural products for the first time, introducing 2x5W supporting either LTE or GSM. In the past, they've been incorporated into other solution provider's kit for outdoor use, but I've not seen them directly offer this configuration before.
Irish Benetel designs and tests LTE hardware modules for other vendors to build small cell product with. They were showing off a very effiicent design of LTE 2x2 MIMO in Band 28 (700MHz) that requires comparatively little input power. They've seen some interest in outdoor CBRS 3.5GHz but only at low power (500mW).
AT&T were showing off their drone capability, used not just for visual inspection of cell towers, “walk testing” of stadiums but also could be deployed for emergency coverage. While I didn’t like the name (Flying COW = Cell on Wings), it appears this is still at a very early stage compared with EE’s highly professional showcase the week before in UK. Their first flight was only two weeks ago. For what its worth, my money is on heli-kites rather than drones.
It seems there are still many IoT protocols to choose from – SIGFOX, Lora, Zigbee, NB-IoT, Cat-M and more. The two most relevant to cellular Small Cells are NB-IoT and Cat-M. It’s really up to the chipset vendors to provide the firmware, and we can expect that fairly soon. NB-IoT is most likely to come first, extending the reach of macro cellular coverage - it’s already nationwide in several European countries. Air-Lynx, which is based on a French Bull processor chip, claim to have both already.
I’d note that the combination of CBRS and NB-IoT offers some quite interesting potential for standalone/private IoT networks in commercial/industrial campuses.
And what’s unusual
Once again my vote for the most exciting display was for the Samsung booth, where the virtual reality rollercoaster ride (in full 3D motion) was hugely popular.
Navigating around the show remains a challenge at times, and I could really do with a decent indoor navigation App next year. Perhaps that might work in combination with these vibrating shoes on offer that prompt you when you need to turn. A bonus side effect is that they might offset the sore feet from pacing the corridors intensively all week too.
- Small Cell wireless backhaul vendors are looking for other avenues to generate revenue while waiting for the urban small cell market to develop. One growth area is the last mile for fixed broadband, where fibre is still costly to connect from street to home. Jamie Fink of Mimosa reckons he can do 250Mbps for $100 at scale in the 5GHz band, far less than the (up to) $500 per home to connect fibre from the street. Others are clearly eye-ing up this opportunity in places where G.Fast becomes technically constrained and fibre is just too expensive.
- NEC were keen to point out they remain very much in the Small Cell business, having gained almost 10 years of practical experience at the sharp end of deployments. They are one of the few vendors of Small Cell gateways, supporting both 3G and 4G, supporting legacy Cisco/Ubiquisys products as well as the latest SpiderCloud E-RAN. Their latest win is with SpiderCloud at Vodafone Turkey, which complements their previous win with another Turkish operator AVEA in 2015. There's nothing like having competition to ensure you keep up. They've also made progress with Japanese operator DoCoMo and Costa Tsourkas (EMEA Bus Dev) told me he was confident there would be a resurgence in the consumer market for small cells in the long term, indicating that we shouldn't believe that all operators are against in-building small cells or spectrum sharing.
- Nokia seemed to me to emphasise their Flexi-Zone architecture more than the acquired Alcatel-Lucent in-building products, but both are ongoing and there is a new release of their Enterprise/SOHO femtocell. They are strong supporters of unlicensed (MultiFire, LAA) and CBRS, and also keen to promote MEC (Mobile Edge Computing) sharing some use cases from industrial sites. They've been looking at different ways to camoflage urban small cells, incorporating these into other types of street furniture with anything from parking meters to street lighting. The picture below shows one concept which resembles to me something out of Dr Who's Tardis.
- NFV architectures: ASOCS, Altiostar, Dali have invested heavily in different aspects of advanced virtualised basestation architectures which can be configured to direct capacity from centralised “baseband hotels” to different radio heads. They face strong competition from the incumbent RAN vendors with operators not yet taking the step to deploy this commercially at scale perhaps because it could be potentially a big risk.
- Node-H, who already supply the software powering millions of the world's deployed small cells, announced a dual mode (3G/4G) small cell developed in partnership with Arcadyan. This has already been tested with the Parallel Wireless gateway and incorporated into their in-building eco-system. Their highly portable software now also supports the Qualcomm chipset.
- Cisco seem to be happier about LTE-U now and told me they think it will “play fair” with the Wi-Fi in the unlicensed spectrum. They see CBRS as a great opportunity and continue to resell SpiderCloud in the Enterprise, positioning Ericsson's Radio Dot product for more public areas. They are also open to other small cell vendors developing plug-in or clip-on modules for their Aeronet Wi-FI hotspots.
- Radio planning tool vendors were full of surprises. Infovista told me that many operators are still fairly primitive when assessing where and how best to invest in network capacity, making decisions based purely on technical rules rather than business considerations. They promote a solution which involves applying a predefined set of business rules to prioritise where investments should be made. I'd thought this was already quite a mature area but apparently this is not so. Alastair Williamson, CEO of RANplan, reports several significant wins (Claro in Brazil, Telenor group) where they work in conjunction with existing outdoor radio planning tools to design multi-layer HetNets in dense urban areas. Meanwhile iBwave position themselves as the leaders for in-building wireless design, incorporating all aspects of the design process from RF to cabling with a database of 25,000 different products to choose from ranging from WI-Fi access points to Small Cells to DAS.
- David Orloff of the Small Cell Forum tells me they are aiming to lead the way towards 5G, avoiding industry fragmentation and remain useful place for discussion and debate. They released a series of "practical guides towards a profitable 5G", building on their previous work related to densifying 4G networks. Download from scf.io
- The MulteFire Alliance also had their own stand. The timescale for silicon from Qualcomm is said to be a year away (Q1 2018), so I'd position this to follow on from CBRS and LAA. Download our popular MulteFire white paper.
Clarion/Avren hinted they plan to move the SCWS Americas show to San Jose this year, quite a big change from Dallas. Again co-located with their LPWAN event. Expect an announcement shortly.
MWC is organized by the GSMA who recently acquired the rights to run the CTIA Super Mobility event and have renamed and reformatted this to become MWC Americas held in San Francisco on September 12-14 2017.
Did you miss the keynote speakers?
GSMA recorded and published most of the keynote speeches to watch when convenient. There are quite a few to choose from, but others have recommended Masayoshi Son (Softbank), Reed Hastings (Netflix), Ajit Pai (new FCC Chairman)
Thanks to all those who met me at the event last week and apologies for those I've had to omit from this report due to lack of space. We'll be following up and expanding on many of the topics seen at the show, so keep a lookout for upcoming feature articles. If you've not yet subscribed to our monthly or weekly email updates, please do so (top left hand of the page).
And if you disagree or would like to note other aspects I've overlooked, feel free to comment below (anonymously if you prefer).