In the past, it was said that the only people making money out of small cells were the conference organisers. Numbers continue to grow at this major event, the next largest after Avren's World Summit in London: 750 registrants including 230 from operators. Delegates like the clearer focus on Small Cells than at other events, and networking opportunities are good. These events co-incide with the Small Cell Forum plenary sessions, so you tend to find the industry players onsite – even if they don't attend the conference itself. After 10 years, MD Carole Mayhew announced she will be stepping down from Clarion and this would be her last event - she will be missed.
More realistic forecasts
It's been said (many times) before that "next year is the year of the Small Cell". Many of us thought that take-up would have been earlier than has been the case. Some evidence is building for growth at last, first in Enterprise and then outdoor urban with LTE. Small Cell Forum chairman Alan Law pointed to the latest Mobile Experts forecast of 5.5M small cells shipping during 2019 (of which 2M residential). These are radically lower forecasts than we've seen from others in the past but seem to be generally accepted as feasible by most industry players.
Tom Keathley, ATT's SVP for Network and Product Planning, said he liked the Enterprise Small Cell "Self Install" approach. "It's an ideal scenario for us", with many Enterprise buildings relatively contained by RF and inter-operating with the macrocell only at the doorways. Urban small cell deployment is more challenging, needs much more seamless interoperation with the macrocells. "These HetNets need SON to play a major role, and that means it's not yet as mature as the enterprise scenario." He agrees with the Forum's current list of barriers to more rapid deployment and doesn't expect to see any new roadblocks appear. A lot of work continues to be done within the Forum to address and overcome them.
LTE small cells more visible
Various LTE only small cells were on show, especially from Asia. Aritel, Airvana, Arcadyan, Airspan were visible among others (why do they all begin with A?). Qucell have incorporated Qualcomm's UltraSON this year. The persistence of Asian vendors for several years is now starting to pay off. Despite success at home, it's been difficult to overcome barriers to acceptance in other countries; Contela announced two export deals for next year; Arcadayan is believed to be supplying Free France; Qucell seems to be highly engaged in trials with major operators, but no public announcements as yet.
Fujitsu asked ATT if they thought there was a need for 4G residential Femtocells (such as theirs). Tom Keathley answered that if Wi-Fi calling succeeds, it could greatly reduce the need for 4G LTE residential Femtocells. Others told me they thought there was demand for 3G product.
Some of these are LTE only products and those vendors seem happy to leave the 3G businesses to those already mature with it (e.g. ip.access, Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, Sagemcom, Airvana etc.)
TruMobility explained how they deploy 3G CDMA Femtocells at many businesses such as car showrooms, helping their staff run the business better using voice features such as short code dialling, one number call handling. I asked why not deploy LTE ones so can show off the latest connected car features? We may do that too, but it will take a while before VoLTE is predominant – most devices and users will be 3G voice for some time.
The race for Multi-Mode Enterprise Small Cell
The race for a fully featured Enterprise femtocell has been joined by the big players. Alcatel-Lucent (using Qualcomm chipset), Ericsson and Huawei will all have fairly similar products commercially available early next year. These will be 3G, LTE, Wi-Fi multi-mode, powered by Ethernet (typically 50W), approx. 2 to 2.5 litres in size and easy to configure/deploy. Ericsson and Huwei are keen to point out theirs use the Iu-b interface for 3G, allowing soft handoff and more seamless interworking with the macro network (especially if also their own). Alcatel-Lucent use Iu-h and can claim to have proven interworking underneath other RAN macro equipment in their 74 trials worldwide.
Meanwhile, Spidercloud already have 3G/LTE multi-mode product commercially available. They announced during the show they've been selected by Verizon Wireless (for LTE rather than 3G), indicating the tremendous progress towards product maturity they've made in recent years. Cisco told me they have also been working with major Tier 1's but weren't in a position to publicly reveal which ones. Cisco's Mark Grayson notes that property owners are now prepared to pay towards the cost of in-building cellular and Wi-Fi systems – they just need them to be competitive priced and cost effective.
Neutral Host Small Cells
A key difference between DAS and Small Cells has always been the support for multiple operators – Small Cells are normally locked to a single operator. Ken Sandfeld, SVP Solid, contrasted the various technical architectures on offer today (Small Cells, DAS, C-RAN, oDAS) and noted that there is greater recognition that each has a role to play. (Read our latest white paper on selecting between these, published this week, sponsored by Solid)
Nick Johnson from ip.access laid out a vision where a small cell installation could be shared using MOCN (or MORAN). This network sharing is already standardised and allows the same spectrum band owned by one operator to be shared by users from all networks. He explained the network management implications, including a virtualised EMS, where each operator could see only a subset of relevant information for their subscribers and not that for competitors.
Fred ter Haar of Ericsson also thought there was scope for a shared Small Cell deployment. He said "Building owners don't want to deal with multiple operators, they want packaged solutions and find it difficult to accommodate parallel projects from multiple operators". Their SCaaS (Small Cells as a Service) could use their existing products (Radio Dot, RBS6402 etc.) which already support network sharing. Although this isn't commonly used in the US today, technically it is available and already deployed on macrocell networks elsewhere.
Some of the more unusual stuff
Athena Wireless, who have both a 60GHz backhaul product and a standalone LTE small cell, told me that they are focussing more on diverse projects than trying to compete head-on with the major OEMs for Tier 1 contracts. They've integrated the Quortus EPC core network to achieve complete standalone LTE mobile network with 1W RF in approx. 1 litre form factor that only needs power.
One unusual application is to fit this to a drone aircraft and have it circle above an area – giving instant coverage for high speed LTE service for miles around. As you can imagine, very interesting for military applications but also potentially useful for disaster scenarios too. I could imagine it's also a radical solution to resolve poor coverage problems for that rich billionaire on the golf course, and could use lower cost methods such as a tethered balloon.
Altiostar were new to me. They are not traditional Small Cell vendors, closer to a Cloud RAN solution and similar to Airvana in being LTE only. They've come up with (yet another) way to slice and dice the RAN architecture – similar to a Cloud RAN architecture but with a bit more processing on the radio nodes to reduce the need for so much backhaul capacity.
Octoscope have an anachoid test chamber that looks an awful lot like a microwave oven. By hooking up a couple of these and remotely controlling the antennuation between each, they can simulate the devices moving closer/further away. Meanwhile test vendor IXIA commented that they've seen a lot more interest in thorough testing of the Wi-Fi side of smartphones, indicating that operators are taking the performance of Carrier Wi-Fi more seriously than before.
Undoubtedly I've omitted a whole host of topics and discussion from the event; apologies to those whose insights I've had not had space to include. These shows are a hive of activity with lots to see and talk about. We will be following up with additional features from some of the meetings and discussions held this week, so watch this space.
Significant progress continues to be made towards viable, credible small cell deployment. The Small Cell Forum activity level remains high with engagement from large numbers of operators and vendors. They really want to make this work. I sense that the industry is becoming more comfortable with the small cell concept and adopting it into the toolkit.
Small cell market forecasts are difficult at the best of times. It helps not just to look at the numbers but understand the key variables and underlying reasoning. We're hosting a webinar on Wed Dec 10th with two leading Small Cell analysts who will explain just that. Join me with Caroline Gabriel and Joe Madden for that deeper insight, and hear how their views have evolved over the last year. Register today, and even if you can't attend at the scheduled time, we'll send you a link to the recording.
Meanwhile, why not download our latest white paper on how to choose between the different Enterprise Wireless Solutions available today.
Here's a short (6 minute) video with a few snippets from the show, including an LTE "Network in a box" that can be fitted to an airborne drone, Multi-operator Small Cells as a Service using multiple small cells, how MOCN can be used to the same effect and a new compact test chamber.