The lifecycle of this annual event has seen many changes over the past 10 years or so since inception. Femtocells have been renamed Small Cells, the scope has expanded, 5G has become a hot topic. Many small cell start-ups have come and gone, we’ve shifted focus from technology to deployment and business case, and the larger RAN vendors and tower companies are much more visible.
I have to say I liked the latest venue, a Novotel in West London. The conference room and exhibition area were adjacent with dedicated meeting rooms close by. It was convenient for both the main airport and the city, and appropriately sized – neither dwarfed by the huge Excel centre halls nor as overpriced as the previous hotel in Greenwich. Catering was definitely a step up and the room layout was easy to navigate. The bar/coffe area close by made a good place for more informal meetings
Although co-located with LPWA World (Low Power Wide Area for Internet of Things), these were on separate floors and quite independent. That event was much smaller and mostly a conference with only five exhibitors. Given the limited relevance between the two events, I thought that worked quite well.
The format of the event consisted of a one day workshop followed by a two day conference. The annual award ceremony was more low key than in previous years, held downstairs with drinks and “bowl food” to eat while standing.
I feel this has now become a regional event rather than a truly global one, attracting operator delegates primarily from UK and Europe. Several speakers and exhibitors did travel from US and Asia, but the focus was very much on the European market. This complements the SCWS Americas event that attracts a regional US audience.
The main conference program broke down into
- 5h30 Stream presentations (20-30 minutes each)
- 4h20 Plenary Panel Sessions
- 2h30 Plenary Speakers (20-30 minutes each)
- 2h Plenary Topic-Led roundtables
- 2h Plenary breakfast briefings
- 1h20 Stream Panel sessions
I felt the time constraint on the presentations of 20 minutes left too little time for Q&A, leaving some of the more outrageous comments from speakers unchallenged. By contrast, the roundtable sessions seemed to be sparsely attended. Timekeeping was generally good.
Attendance and Exhibitors
While numbers were down on previous years, and the conference room itself looked sparsely populated (especially for the 8am breakfast briefings), I thought there was quite a constant buzz in the exhibition area throughout. I’d estimate the total delegate size in the hundreds rather than into four figures. Several exhibitors reported that there was a good turnout of engineers from UK network operators and several from European ones.
The 30 exhibitors included several small cell companies, mostly European/Taiwanese/Korean/US, and we saw more system integrators/installers appearing than before (e.g. Virtua, NET, iWireless). The larger RAN vendors, especially Huawei, Ericsson and NEC were much more visible and have become the major sponsors of the event – especially promoting their LampSite and Radio Dot products.
There was a sprinkling of Carrier Wi-Fi speakers and one or two exhibitors, but the focus was very much more on cellular. A few DAS companies were represented, (e.g. JMA, Kathrein), with of course SpiderCloud now part of Corning. Zyxel and NET showed off their mini-DAS products (ZoneDAS and Cell-Fi Quatro respectively).
While there were several excellent presentations at the conference, I think it would be fair to say that there were few of the really senior executives from network operators present – it’s a long time since the show opened with a CTO roundtable. The program was quite eclectic and although each section was themed, the content often didn’t match.
David Orloff, Chairman of the Small Cell Forum, gave an upbeat view of the future. In addition to their Plenary meetings, the Forum has been running regional workshops, with one in China just a week prior which attracted 70 delegates. The Forum still seeks to become the primary industry organisation for 5G and has been spending a lot of effort in partnership meetings and document production. David warned the audience several times that Europe stands to lose out on 5G by not investing early enough. He is concerned that 5G has too many options and risks fragmentation. The Forum is focussed on the hotel vertical market today and will next be looking at Healthcare and Property Management
A major contrast for me was between this 5G element of the conference whereas the exhibition was almost exclusively about 4G. It’s hard to see how independent small cell vendors could break into the 5G market which .
There was little said about CBRS which is viewed today as a US initiative. MulteFire was also remarkably dormant. Everyone seemed to be focussing on how to deploy 4G both indoors and out. Many independent vendors and installers would love to have access to some lightly licenced cellular spectrum and I did hear of one who continues to use the indoor low power DECT guard band at 1800MHz in the UK.
Neutral Host Deployments
While I sense that some operators are still reluctant to engage with third parties who want to install and deploy their own small cells, it was refreshing to hear AECOM (a major building design company) explain their own multi-operator managed solution. OpenCell have installed SpiderCloud and other small cells inside their new Central London offices which otherwise would have had no coverage. Instead they are getting over 70Mbps throughout and very happy with the solution. Vodafone are said to be so impressed that they are upgrading other SpiderCloud installations with 4G as well. OpenCell claim to have 100 customers signed up and are live in 64 sites to date with their solution based on operators’ already approved 3G Femtocells and SpiderCloud 3G/4G. SpiderCloud highlight that they’ve substantially reduced cost, space and installation time by remotely siting their Service Node (system controller) at OpenCell’s datacentre rather than within the customer offices.
While I hear of plenty of demand and several “stealth-mode” neutral host companies soon to launch, I’d still like to see the network operators make it easier. The big tower companies are also keen to get in on the act, and not just in North America. Digital Colony, a multi-billion, multi-national investor in tower companies explained how they foresee continuing growth in mobile data demand and expect to buy into a large share. They have witnessed the next phase of urban small cell rollouts, with initial 300-400 per city being revisited with orders for 3,000-4,000. With over 22,000 already deployed across their properties worldwide, they expect this to contribute towards the tower industry’s ongoing 7% annual growth rate.
Another initiative comes from Cluttons, a major property consultant and estate agent (Realtor), who are involved in everything from site acquisition for operators to office block rentals. They’ve created an initiative to work through the practical issues of installing and approving in-building cellular solutions in the UK. We already have a UK only specification (JOTS) which covers DAS installations but it is pretty vague about the specifics of cabling and pre-equipping buildings before they sign up.
Existing installers note that simply paying for and installing your own in-building solution doesn’t guarantee it will be made operational. There are plenty of “Dark DAS” systems which aren’t supported by all operators. NET told me that in the UK more than 60% of DAS systems are not connected to all four networks.
The backhaul star of the show was CCS, who won an award for their urban streetpole mounted mesh network deployed in Central London. They have developed a 60GHz version that handles up to four sectors with a total throughput of 12Gbps. This is undergoing trials with a small number of operators in US, Europe and Asia. Their platform is based on BluWireless 60GHz technology, who were separately exhibiting with two parallel links carrying multi-Gbps channels without being affected by interference.
Steve Greaves, CEO, explained how this huge bandwidth can be split to support multiple network slices, each for a different application or network operator.
Richie Peng, President of Huawei's Small Cell Product Line, talked up 5G indoors, highlighting that indoor digital technology can easily support both 4G and 5G. Their LampSite product range has been expanded to include:
- LampSite Pro (for capacity)
- Lampsite Grid (for coverage)
- LampSite Libero (an LTE relay for smaller businesses, similar to Airspan Magic Box)
He confirmed that 5G performs best when allocated at least 100MHz chunk of bandwidth. Combining 4G and 5G in the same solution is quite possible but they will also offer a 5G only radio head for LampSite. He thinks that 70% of 5G use cases are to be found indoors, and specifically believes the precise positioning that 5G can deliver will be a valuable and differentiating feature.
Ericsson said they don’t know of any operator who doesn’t want to reuse and build on their existing network when evolving to 5G. They illustrated how Radio Dot can smoothly evolve to support 5G by adding spectrum, advanced antenna technology. The coverage of 5G at 3.5GHz is said to match that of 4G at 2GHz but with higher data rates.
Alok Shah, VP Samsung Networks Strategy for North America, explained to me how each US network has quite a different approach to 5G, so it will be interesting to see how this will play out. It’s public knowledge that they are one of Verizon’s infrastructure vendors for 5G, who have said they plan to launch fixed broadband service in 4 markets before the end of the year – including Sacramento and Los Angeles. We interviewed Samsung recently about their 5G rollout with Verizon.
Andy Sutton of BT/EE gave his usual high standard of presentation, clearly explaining his company’s network evolution technical strategy for 5G (for which he is responsible). With super-low latency a key differentiator for 5G, he noted that 60% of fixed broadband traffic today is served by on-net CDN (Content Delivery Network) nodes. This CDN could also be used within the mobile network and located further away from the main datacentres into the aggregation points or may even need to the access nodes themselves. It reminds me of the early Ubiquisys/Intel demos of their EdgeCloud feature that demonstrated this back in 2012.
Randy Cox, VP Small Cells at Nokia, believes that 2018 will be the year of LAA, providing much higher data rates and additional free spectrum at 5GHz. Many of their US shipments today are LAA capable as we heard from Stefan Daeuble a few weeks ago.
I heard views from others who were a little more sceptical, concerned that either LAA shares the same performance overload problems as Wi-Fi in really congested areas (which is where it's needed most). So it seems the jury is still out on this one, at least in Europe.
The concept of a single LTE Relay product that combines a 4G small cell with a separate 4G receiver, backhauling the signal to a nearby macrocell, seems to be gaining in popularity. Airspan’s Magic Box has been shipped to many Sprint customers, while SoftBank have also launched it in Japan. Their version, also from Airspan, is smaller and transmits inside the building at lower power in Band 3 (1800 MHz) only. Masanori Nomachi explained how the unit takes only 10 minutes to boot up and self-configure, typically placed near a window. In Japan, a technician is required to visit and install the device and so can choose the most appropriate position. This might be a window but given the RF blocking properties of the latest glass might equally be next a brick wall.
Huawei have also developed one branded as LampSite Libero, initially for Vodafone but now available to all their customers.
I’d say that Small Cells are mostly down to three main chipset vendors. While it’s true that you can make smaller scale products based on FPGAs such as Xilinx, it is the specialist Small Cell custom chips that provide the acceleration to handle higher capacity at low power consumption.
Neither Cavium nor Intel were present (to my knowledge), although products based on both platforms continue to be demonstrated.
I met with Irvind Ghai, VP Qualcomm Connectivity Business Unit, who now leads both cellular (Small Cell) and Wi-Fi (Access Point) chipset development. He was pleased to report that revenues of Small Cell chipsets have doubled in the past year. Their business has restructured to combine both technologies, where before they were independent. Their focus for small cells has shifted from purely the latest cutting edge technology across to deployment. Their big announcement during the week was that the next version of their FSM100xx chipset will support 5G, although it can continue to support 4G and be software configured for either. He also sees future promise in 60GHz small cell backhaul and looks towards Facebook’s Terragraph project with great anticipation.
There were few live demos at the show, with perhaps BluWireless 60GHz multi-gigabit backhaul taking the prize for that. Of the companies we haven’t mentioned above, small cell vendors Accelleran continue to be stalwarts of these events with what appears to have become quite a robust and adaptable range especially for lower power outdoor 4G. They’ve partnered with CellXica, who were also exhibiting, and who are fairly unusual because they can support 2G/3G and/or 4G on the same platform. We had previously reported their unusual GiLTE demo which operates both 2G and 4G in the same band, but I was told they haven’t commercialised that despite some interest and instead focussed on more lucrative business opportunities that offer a quicker return on investment.
RANplan was the only radio planning tool that I saw. They have been gaining some major new customers for their indoor/outdoor solution that can now also map 5G at millimeter frequencies. The company plans a $7 million IPO In Sweden in June.
BT had the largest demo with a full size telephone box equipped with a small cell hidden in the roof space. Although only one Nokia small cell was fitted, the unit could accommodate several from different network operators. Each site is backhaul with either 100Mbps or 1Gbps managed Ethernet and transmits above head height using an omnidirectional antenna. It would seem we will shortly be making phone calls from telephone boxes again, just without realising it.
Apologies for not featuring every exhibitor in this report due to space constraints.
Small Cell Forum Award Winners
Congratulations not just to those who won, but those who were shortlisted in this year’s Small Cell Forum Awards. Professional photos here. It’s been a pleasure having been a judge for almost 10 years, and the time spent reviewing and assessing contributions was worthwhile.
Winners for each category were:
- Excellence in Commercial Deployment (Residential) - Sprint/Airspan for Magic Box LTE Relay
- Excellence in Commercial Deployment (Urban) – CCS for City of London small cell backhaul network
- Excellence in Commercial Deployment (Enterprise) – Nokia for Flexi-Zone shopping mall and public building deployment
- Excellent in commercial Deployment (Rural, Remote, Temporary) – Parallel Wireless for Ice Wireless in Northern Canada
- HetNet Software and Services – Management and Automation – AirHop for HetNet Performance Insight with eSON
- Deployment of New Architectures Enabling the Dense HetNet - Huawei for Small BTS solution with LTE backhaul
- Commercial Small Cell Design and Technology (Network and XHaul) – HPE/Softbank for Dedicated PCRF for Small Cells
- Outstanding Innovation in Small Cell Technology or Architecture – Accelleran for Architecture-agnostic small cell RAN-vRAN solutions
- Outstanding Innovation in Small Cell Business Case – OpenCell for Multi-operator in-building coverage using Small Cells
- Social Impact - Parallel Wireless/Telefonica for Connecting LATAM’s unconnected
- Judges Choice – ITRI for deep innovation helping to advance small cells as a platform
- Chairman’s Award – Mirela Doicu, Nokia
- Individual Contribution – Ravi Sinha, Reliance Jio
My thanks to all those who took the time to update me during the event on recent industry developments including some full and frank opinions. Apologies for omitting any speakers, exhibitors and others from this report due to lack of space.