Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

Small Cell roundup from Mobile World Congress 2012

mwc_logo_11Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona each year provides the major event for the industry to get together and network with others. A comparatively small conference, a huge exhibition and even larger set of meeting rooms allows over 60,000 industry participants to promote, share and discuss. With more focus this year on Small Cells, it was a pleasant surprise to see this term accepted as a mainstream part of the future industry direction - many more vendors are happy to use this term than (residential) femtocells. Here's my snapshot of the show from a small cell perspective.

A wide scope with little specific focus?

Unlike previous years, it seemed difficult to identify a specific individual theme for the show this year. The official "Redefining Mobile" theme seemed bland. The keynote speeches from major operators pointed out aspects such as NFC (Near Field Communications = contactless payments), RCS (Rich Communications Services = Skype like features such as video calling/file exchange/instant messaging delivered using IMS) and the wider social benefits and applications of mobile technology (e.g. in Health, Education and Agriculture).

An underlying theme was the relentless growth of mobile. There is now a clearer distinction between the numbers of connections (i.e. SIM cards or individual accounts) and subscribers (i.e. people). Connections are forecast to grow from 6.6Billion today to 9.1Billion by 2015 as we each want to wire up more devices to the internet. In the same timeframe, the 3.6 Billion subscriber base will grow more slowly.

As usual, the operators pleaded for more spectrum and less regulation – promising that this would lead to greater investment and economic prosperity all round. Regardless, the vibrant levels of activity at the show - probably the busiest I've ever seen at this event – reflected growing levels of investment and success all round. Excellent logistics and organisation made the show a pleasure to participate in, even when confronted by riot police dealing with a student protest march outside.

Giving the analysts a good roasting

Prior to the main event itself, the major equipment vendors provided an extensive briefing to analysts about their latest developments. HetNets and Small Cells were the order of the day, with Ericsson, Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent and NSN all singing off the same hymn sheet. Capacity will be delivered with a mix of large and small cells – LTE can't do this on its own. I could say you read it here first, but this message has been a mainstay of the femtocell industry for several years. With many operators preferring to stick to their major suppliers for equipment, it's good to see they are all onboard and on message. However, unlike previous years, the larger vendors locked down their display areas to invitation only – making it difficult for casual browsing during free moments.

Ericsson themselves have reinforced their enthusiasm for small cells by joining the board of the Small Cell Forum. Their recent purchase of BelAir confirmed their commitment to public Wi-Fi and small cell architecture, leading similar public access Wi-Fi companies such as Ruckus Wireless to adopt the Small Cell terminology prominently on their booth. One analyst suggested that the success of competitor femtocell deployments, which position them to easily scale up and deploy large numbers of metrocells, has encouraged Ericsson to catch up.

Huawei, highly visible at the show as they try to get known for smartphones, kept any femtocell products firmly away from prying eyes. Mobile Europe explained that they have withdrawn from residential/enterprise femtocell developments for the time being, but remain committed to small cells for public areas as part of their GigaSite product suite.

Other vendors have joined the small cell story too, including many who didn't (and don't plan to) participate in the residential solutions. A few examples from the crowd include PowerWave, more commonly known for their radio power amplifiers and antenna systems, who had models of LTE indoor and outdoor small cells on show. They gave an excellent presentation on the reasoning and effectiveness of small cells to deliver capacity and speed cost-effectively. Airspan, another LTE small cell specialist, also had an enviable range of products on display.

Alcaltel-Lucent, who last year had a somewhat overlapping story with both LightRadio (dumb radio heads connected by fibre to a central data centre) and Metro-Cells (femtocells connected by IP), now seem to have combined and consolidated these products. I couldn't help notice that the Mindspeed (who acquired Picochip last month) stand featured a 3G Alcatel-Lucent LightRadio, almost certainly with Picochip silicon inside. There were also regular ALU femtocells and metrocells on show too.

Nokia-Siemens don't make small cells themselves as yet, but are a solution provider using Ubiquisys kit. I even noticed an NSN branded (Ubiquisys) model on the Femtozone stand). Likewise, the NEC stand had both 3G and LTE femtocells – the 3G ones clearly being Ubiquisys models but the LTE ones being NEC's own. I wasn't able to ascertain how close their LTE product is to live customer trials. The Ubiquisys stand itself was as busy as ever, with their growing range of 3rd party vendors on show, and visitors sometimes having to spill outside into the sunshine. A Tecom outdoor metro-cell was also on display, as was Public Wireless, SerComm and other gear.

Femtocells and DAS no longer competitors?

ip.access have had a few significant announcements recently, such as their selection by Telenor (not just for Norway, but for use in a variety of networks they share ownership of) and their plans to develop an LTE small cell of their own.

Perhaps more interestingly is a collaboration with TE Connectivity, who are an ip.access shareholder and a major supplier of DAS (Distirbuted Antenna Systems). They have integrated an ip.access femtocell onto a card that slots into their InterReach DAS system. No longer the need for a separate external standard microcell with attenuation – this system connects directly to a femto gateway and could even be Iu-h standards based. The initial product is based on their proven 3G HSPA+ 16 channel hardware and software, with customer trials in the pipeline. The DAS system can distribute signals from several sources around a building, for example from multiple operators which could be using a mix of onboard and offboard basestations, and several technologies, such as HSPA and LTE. I think this could be quite attractive for multi-story buildings such as office blocks and shopping malls.

Component suppliers continue major investments

A further indication of the growing confidence in a small cell architecture is the continued investment from major chip vendors. TI announced a further expansion of their Keystone II product line. The move to 28nm technology means that an incredible 2.3 billion transistors can be accommodated on the same chip. The TCI6636 combines 4 ARM15 Risc Cores (the first company to do quad ARM A15) with 6 C66X DSPs and powerful accelerator units for specific dedicated tasks. Wire this up with high speed internal busses, clock it at 1.25GHz and you get a single chip that can handle up to 256 concurrent users at full LTE cat 7 speeds (300Mbps using 40Mhz of spectrum). Sampling next quarter, it will be commercially generally available by the end of 2012. This complements their previously announced 6612 and 6614 chips which handle up to 64 and 128 users respectively, including capacity for the 6614 to handle both 3G and LTE simultaneously.

Mindspeed, Freescale, LSI and Qualcomm all seem to be working towards System-on-a-Chip products that can deliver both 3G and LTE Advanced at full speed. These provide compatability with the large numbers of existing 3G devices still in use while ensuring that each cellsite can make full use of the spectrum available. In some cases, these devices will be soft rebootable to switch between 3G and LTE; in other cases, the chips provide full support for both technologies simultaneously. Rupert Baines of Mindspeed points out that the cost of any public access cellsite makes the economics of combining as much functionality into a single box as possible - the total site costs with all the overheads including backhaul outweigh the higher costs of the electronics inside.

Other important components include the RF front end, where Lime Microsystems again have had a busy meeting room and claim many design wins (unfortunately not all of which are public yet), and the Timing/Sync requirements, where Symmetricomm (who supply the master clocks for the majority of mobile networks worldwide) recently launched what they claim is the highest capacity femtocell timing controller (NTP Master) capable of driving up to 25,000 femtocells in a single rack. They also have developed a software client targetted at the full range of 3G and LTE small cells – it even copes with the tight phase tolerances required for TDD-LTE.

Radisys (who acquired Continuous Computing last year) continue to expand the scope of their software product set. Their "Femtotality" launched last summer and was upgraded to HSPA+ support last December, with a scope that goes far beyond the original Trillium protocol stack alone. Compatible with all the popular silicon vendor platforms, their view is that this allows small cell vendors the option to share the same application software across products that might have different underlying silicon. For example, low cost residential products may be based on a different vendor that high capacity dual-mode metrocells.

The Small Cell Forum launch has gone well

Andy Germano, Vice Chairman, told me he thought the rebranding and renaming of the Femto Forum into the Small Cell Forum had gone well. Many more companies now saw this applicable to them – even Wi-Fi companies are keen to get onboard. He confirmed that they have no ambition to duplicate or compete with other organisations that handle Wi-Fi specifications, and will co-operate and collaborate with others as appropriate. 

An example of that co-operation has been with their Services API work, which has been embedded into the GSMA One-API specification. An agreement has recently been reached with the OMA. For example, this will allow developers using those same APIs to access better location information and to personalise services when in an area covered by a small cell (which I guess is still called a femtozone).

Now a regular feature of the show by popular demand, the Forum arranged their floorspace into a small lecture area where members gave a range of presentations free to exhibitors and delegates alike. A "state of the nation" market view included data from their latest market status report prepared by Informa Telecoms, which continues to record ongoing takeup and predict rapid growth. Small cells of all types are forecast to comprise 88% of all cellsites by 2015, most of them (59 million) being residential femtocells but public access small cells growing from 595K in 2012 to 2.9 million in 2016. Small cells will outnumber basestations worldwide before the end of 2012. Informa's latest report, together with related positioning papers is freely available to download from their website here.

Summary

Such a large show attracting over 60,000 encompasses an enormous range of participants from all parts of the industry. It is impossible to do justice to the many different facets in a short report like this – my apologies for omitting many newsworthy elements and not visiting every corner of the show.

My own takeaway is that the mobile industry is healthy and growing again, with large investments being planned to deliver mobile broadband capacity and services through 3G, LTE and even Wi-Fi. There's no question that the network architecture to achieve this goal will involve Small Cells and Hetereogenous Networks. The technology to do so is understood, and armies of developers are already at work throughout the foodchain to make this a reality.

Perhaps the bigger question is how network operators will evolve and adapt to make money out of data, rather than traditional voice, services. The $20 per megabyte price for mobile roaming charges paid by some delegates seems too much; the all-you-can-eat data plans in some countries or free Wi-Fi seem too little. I'd say the economics of making money out of mobile network businesses will need as much attention as the technical advances – and perhaps this creates more room for collaboration between the two in future years.

Next year the event will move to a larger site on the outskirts of Barcelona, hoping to attract an even larger attendance. I'll miss the location in the heart of the city, but hope to continue to enjoy the sunshine and wide range of restaurants on offer.

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