The mobile industry seems to be trying its best to understand and establish the validity of Small Cell market forecasts. These vary in terms of timescale, size and technology. Further confusion arises by mixing the terms Femtocells and Small Cells.
We consider some of the reasons for the confusion and look at one way to clarify progress and map out the right road to follow.
Reasons for confusion
Uncertainty and disbelief of Small Cell forecasts arises for reasons including (but not limited to):
- The scope of the term Small Cells is used by some only to mean outdoor/Urban types rather than including indoor/Enterprise or Residential
- The early huge forecasts for residential Femtocells (90 million by 2014 etc.) are often quoted alongside descriptions of LTE Urban Small Cell deployments
- DAS, Remote Radio Head and even some standalone Wi-Fi vendors are branding their solutions as "Small Cell"
- Where Femtocells were initially expected to have low RF output power, say below 1W, we are now seeing picocells and microcells with up to 10W capability being included in scope.
- Potential revenues from the Small Cell industry can be much wider than just the products themselves, especially for outdoor public access use.
There are no shortage of customer surveys published on the topic, but as Peter Jarich points out, these can vary widely in terms of quality and relevance. So rather than simply asking "is this the year of the Small Cell?", perhaps a set of more targeted questions might elicit a more useful response.
Describing a pathway to follow
One way to establish how far down the road the industry has progressed is to map out more clearly the steps that are taken.
Mike Lawton of Keysight Technologies (formerly a part of Agilent) made an excellent presentation at a recent Cambridge Wireless Small Cell event. This included spelling out a four step progression from lab to live deployment.
1> Wireless Law: Where engineers consume lots of coffee while creating new standards
2> Regulatory Law: Where devices are put on trial in the test houses to prove their conformance
3> Physics Law: Where electromagnetic laws determine if it actually works
4> Commercial Law: Where the market determines if anyone actually buys it
Applying the roadmap to the latest LTE Advanced features
Mike spoke about some of the advanced network features designed for HetNets using LTE Small Cells, such as eICIC (enhanced Intercell Interference Co-ordination), ABS (Almost Blank Subframes) and CRE (Cell Range Extension).
These require capabilities within the smartphones to work closely with network equipment, and it is these devices that are rigorously tested in conformance test labs to ensure they comply and won't disrupt the network.
His view was that these LTE-Advanced features are currently around the end of Stage 2 above, i.e. just finishing proving their conformance in the test labs and would be moving out into Field Trials later this year and commercial deployment during 2015.
The test labs that certify smartphones and similar devices use procedures developed by the PTCRB (North American operators) and GCF (Global Certification Forum). I understand that the PTCRB has published RFT 116 which describes the certification procedures for ICIC for LTE but the GCF does not yet have a work item on the topic.
Some parts of the world may be moving more quickly
That's not to say that there are places in the world which could be a bit further ahead. South Korean operators KT, SKT and LG+ are all rushing to roll out LTE-Advanced services. For example, SKT announced plans to deploy eICIC during 2014 having already gone live with other LTE Advanced features. I expect that Japanese operators may not be far behind, and we may see a flurry of announcements from around the world over the next 12 months.
Let's not forget the commercial products already available
Of course 3G Small Cells are not just commercially available but widely deployed by many operators, especially for residential and enterprise use.
LTE Small Cells are also commercially deployed, again more commonly indoors to date and perhaps not using the full array of LTE Advanced standards features described above.
But comparing progress against a staged roadmap such as this can help visualise and validate how far along the development path towards full commercial deployment each type of Small Cell use case has reached to date.