The Small Cell Forum has just elected its third Chairman in seven years, with Alan Law moving up from Vice-Chair. He's been a long time Small Cell proponent, active Forum Member and focal point for Small Cells within Vodafone Group. Alan reaffirms the Forum's primary role, reveals how the Forum's Virtualisation workstream is leading towards a much wider scope, and answers some challenging questions about the difficult choices facing the mobile industry.
Although an active Forum participant, you've perhaps been less visible to those outside. How will this change in your new role?
First, let me say how proud and honoured I am to be elected Chairman. I feel a responsibility to do my best to drive the Forum forward, address key issues affecting the industry allowing it to accelerate ahead in scale and understanding.
The primary role of the chairman is to set the agenda for the forum's executive board and drive consensus among members, in collaboration with Forum CEO Sue Monahan who continues to handle day-to-day management duties.
I have recently returned from Small Cells MENA in Dubai, where we have seen a surge in interest as well as gain further understanding of the requirements important to that region. You can expect to see me presenting at several upcoming conferences, such as Small Cells Americas in Dallas where I'll also be delivering a Vodafone Group Small Cell update.
We want to make as many people aware of the Small Cell Release program and its extensive content. It's all about reaching the heart of key industry stakeholders and decision makers, so that they are enabled to make the right decisions for their business based on leading, high quality and comprehensive information.
Isn't the work of the Release program almost complete? What's next?
The first objective of the Release program was to issue documentation for the four main environments (residential, enterprise, urban, rural). We collected and aligned work from multiple Forum working groups behind a common cause and published a single definitive set. I've been pleased with the way work has been progressing on this current release 5, which we will deliver in March during Mobile World Congress next year. This latest release entitled Rural and Remote involves more than just rural environments, including moving (trains, ships etc.) and standalone/dedicated (e.g. oil rigs, private network etc.) use cases. This will complete the initial body of work – created around key deployment environments.
Now, as we look to the future, you may have heard that we have been working on a strong theme around Virtualisation This takes an in-depth look at how you adapt small cells to deliver the best possible performance, capacity uplift and customer experience across a virtualised network. We are asking how could you virtualise a small cell network to deliver capacity at an affordable cost. We have already made a significant amount of progress on this. Some of which will be included in our Release 5, but there is enough momentum that a future release may well be focussed on it.
So what does Small Cell Virtualisation really mean?
We are looking at all areas and architectures. The scope includes simpler radio heads which send back much higher data streams (typically via CPRI) to a central point. This approach places much stricter requirements on backhaul bandwidth and latency. There are also models where you migrate much more processing and intelligence towards the edge, even including applications, requiring far less of the backhaul to achieve good service. Our study work is investigating all of these different options and looking for the right mix which gives operators the flexibility to deploy – balancing between something practical but which yields the best performance.
The demand for this approach is equally strong between Urban (outdoor) and Enterprise (In-Building). We're looking at both 3G and LTE, but inevitably as time goes by we would expect the emphasis to move mostly towards LTE.
So are you abandoning your (femtocell) roots?
No, we'll continue to champion all small cells. But we recognise that there needs to be a portfolio of architectures, not a "one-size-fits-all". We want to enable the mobile eco-system by communicating the right information to make the correct decisions. This may differ between operators, regions and use case/scenarios.
In the early days of femtocells, the major use case centred around poor coverage. Since then, the situation has moved on and smartphones are driving data growth. Clearly the laws of physics don't change and there will always be some environments that need coverage solutions, but what we are seeing is demand for scale and future capacity growth. Hence the focus is on squeezing the most out of the technology, especially in demanding urban environments.
Is there a natural limit to the size of buildings or capacity that small cells can be used for?
A common use case that's mentioned for peak mobile capacity is the sports stadium. It's one of the most challenging environments, with huge numbers of tightly packed users served by multiple operators. Technically, the impact of issues such as near/far (i.e. where nearby smartphones are each connected to a different cell/sector sharing the same spectrum) become very challenging. Operators need to rely on a wide range of technologies and expertise to handle this.
But I wouldn't say there was a specific cut-off point or building size limit for small cell technology. It's mostly a factor of the individual product/solution capability. Many products have been designed for a specific size and/or use case – some for a few square metres and others for 100K or even millions of square metres. It's much more about what service and capability you are looking to deliver.
What's your view on multi-operator Small Cell solutions?
Historically, there were a number of factors holding back adoption of multi-operator Small Cells, ranging from commercial aspects to technical aspects such as managing how the available capacity is shared between operators.
However, two 3GPP standards (MORAN and MOCN) have been defined which allow the same Small Cells to be shared between networks.
A few vendors and operators have implemented these features today demonstrating that there is no reason why Small Cells must be tied to a single operator
What's the Industry's biggest misconception about Small Cells?
I'd say this is perhaps primarily around the (lack of) difficulty involved in deploying and managing a Small Cell network from a new vendor. There were of course many issues when Femtocells were first introduced but the industry has addressed them and capabilities have continued to mature. Products are much more robust and cater for many more use cases. The Forum has captured a tremendous amount of real-world experience from our members, developing a set of guidance on best practice.
It seems that there are still many across the industry who are unaware of the scope, quality and relevance of the Release program documents, so I'll be working hard to ensure that this is communicated more widely, especially reaching out to more operators.
We'll also be working hard within the Forum workgroups to ensure that these assets continue to improve and remain up-to-date. Those that use them can then make better informed decisions more quickly, making the most appropriate investment decisions which will benefit both the industry and its customer base as a whole.
You can find the Small Cell Forum's release documentation at scf.io