Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

Small Cell World Summit Report June 2012

SCWSThe annual jamboree for the small cell industry continues to evolve and grow organically. This year's event didn't just have a new name (no longer Femtocell World Summit), it had quite a different feel about it. There has been a substantial groundswell of opinion change from operators in the last six months. LTE, Wi-Fi, Policy Management alone won't be enough to meet their own data traffic forecasts, and everyone is now very serious about deploying substantial numbers of small cells.

As before, Avren have their own style of running the event which attracts all the key players, enables extensive networking and delivers truly great content. It's also quite enjoyable too.

Apologies for the somewhat lengthy report here (which still didn't do justice to the range and depth of information discussed). Apologies to all those I've been unable to mention below. I'll follow up on many aspects included and excluded in the weeks ahead.

The no shows

What was perhaps most telling was not who was present at the event, but who was absent. Compared with a few years ago, the Taiwanese ODMs and Set Top Box vendors have all but disappeared, to be replaced by those enabling public access small cells – metrocells, wireless backhaul, (Solar powered) rural femtocells, satellite providers. Many of the industry stalwarts were there too of course – Ubiquisys, ip.access, Radisys, NEC, ALU, Mindspeed, TI etc. – but perhaps most notable by their absence were the large RAN vendors such as Ericsson or Huawei. Perhaps they're busy selling LTE solutions, but with operators like O2 are saying they'll run out of capacity by 2014 (unless they deploy small cells), this technology is too important to ignore.

The definition of a small cell is changing

The industry has moved focus from residential femtocells, with this different scope creating some potential confusion about what's included in a small cell. For example:

  • Everything Everywhere exclude residential femtocells and (Carrier) Wi-Fi. They're considering enterprise or public access metrocells, directly installed and managed by the operator.
  • The Small Cell Forum would include residential femtocells, but exclude (Carrier) Wi-Fi
  • Cisco would embrace all three (residential, public access cellular, Wi-Fi)

This led to some potential confusion when discussing forecast numbers, timeframes etc.

Operator demand for small cells is strong and growing

Several operators clearly explained their need for small cells – not just residential femtocells, but large numbers of public access indoor and outdoor metrocells and enterprise femtocells, driven by data capacity demand. They have worked out that LTE (and associated new spectrum) and Wi-Fi offload simply won't meet their traffic growth forecasts. Several European operators are actively deploying 3G metrocells and looking for dual-carrier 42 Mbit/s products before they invest heavily in LTE. Meanwhile, Asian operators in Korea and Japan are already deploying huge numbers of LTE small cells, with plans for literally hundreds of thousands of units.

Mindspeed presented their calculations which came up with some 20 million small cells (excluding residential femtocells). Noticeably the vast majority were indoors – some 45% for small/medium enterprise – with about 15% being outdoor metrocells. In their view, since most data traffic is indoors, it makes more sense to deliver it using small cells based indoors than outside.

Small Cell Forum Market Status Report

Validating these forecasts, the quarterly status report from Informa confirmed this growth. Indeed, they have upped their forecast numbers from about 60 to 92 million by 2016. As usual, the report was outdated almost immediately it was published, with three more operators announcing commercial femtocell service this week. Bouygues, Orange UK and O2 UK all announced femtocell deployments. All operators in both France and UK now offer femtocells. O2 UK claim the densest femtocell deployment worldwide, with 1500 deployed in one apartment complex (widely believed to be the London Olympic Village).

Simon Saunders, Chairman of the Small Cell Forum, reported some 3.8 million femtocells commercially deployed today with a forecast of 6.6 million by the end of 2012 – this represents a really dramatic increase in growth this year. 9 out of the top 10 global mobile operators have now deployed femtocells (he didn't say that America Moviles is the 10th). A case study from Sprint has just been released. There is a substantial work program for the Forum, but their two key areas are about interoperability:

  • For LTE macro and small cells, where the standard X.2 open interface will enable/optimise interworking between different vendors. Alcatel-Lucent were very forthright in their position to openly support X.2 including Interoperability Testing.
  • Wi-Fi interoperability (with the Wi-Fi Broadband Alliance)

Some really great operator case studies

There's simply too much detail to drill into here. Several operators gave some really outstanding and well thought through information about their longer term plans and progress to date.

Vodafone Group, a long term believer in femtocells and small cells, are refreshing their femtocell product portfolio with innovative formats such as the new FemtoPlug (a residential femtocell integrated into an electrical mains plug) and upgraded Enterprise femtocells. These have completed field trials and will be launched in many countries in a matter of weeks. They've found a need for really good geo-location tools to identify and report precise traffic hotspots. Looking ahead to bring LTE into their small cell portfolio, initially using separate boxes for 3G and LTE, they'd like the industry to accelerate availability of combined 3G/LTE nodes. They would  also like everyone to embrace the Iu-h open interface, drive down costs and enable the new femtocell Service APIs.

Telefonica O2 gave a detailed explanation of how they've deployed metrocells across London. Having agreed a deal with Westminster Council (London) to deploy on street furniture, they later discovered still needed to apply for individual planning permission for each of 400 street lamps. These are deployed on every 4th street lamp and use a Ruckus wireless shared backhaul from every 5th small cell. Their extensive 1,500 small cell deployment in the (carefully not directly mentioned) London Olympic Village using Alcatel-Lucent metrocells and open access indoor femtocells achieved an astonishing throughput of 1 Gbit/s per square kilometre, and overcame the aluminium foil lining in the walls of the new energy efficient apartment buildings. Separately, they've been successfully trialling solar powered outdoor 3G femtocells, backhauled over LTE which have a total power consumption of 15W. Telefonica group have selected Alcatel-Lucent as small cell supplier in Europe and South America.

Everything Everywhere (UK) confirmed the increasing operator focus on public access small cells for capacity. In Europe, they believe we will see many 3G (public access) small cells deployed before LTE, and want to use dual-carrier 42Mbps 3G small cells. Longer term, they'd like to use 4x4 MIMO LTE small cells (with just 2x2 MIMO in the macrocells). Pricewise, they're aiming for a small cell to cost 1/10th of a macrocell (but I didn't ask if this was CAPEX only). There was a detailed discussion of the various backhaul options – one snippet being that the emerging 60GHz point-to-point microwave products are now down to a price point of £1000/link and putting pressure on E-Band products.

Orange, who haven't been a great fan of femtocells in the past (they had championed the Wi-Fi UMA system) now see a strong demand for Enterprise small cells. Their Orange Enterprise femtocell system will be available in five countries by the end of 2012 (using a mix of vendors). They really like the concept of location based services. They don't see a short term need for LTE femtocells – it's certainly a future requirement, but handset/device penetration would need to grow substantially first.

Sunrise, Switzerland forecast data traffic growth of 16x between 2011 and 2017. They expect it will double until 2014 and then grow more slowly. Today, they manage traffic using policy management with 4 levels. Low price/abusers (Tier 4) can be limited to slower data rates of 200 to 500kbps and would suffer congestion problems before other users. Today, some 7.2% of cellsites are heavily loaded. As with other operators, they forecast the traffic growth will be in the same urban areas. They've launched a residential 3G femtocell (Ubiquisys/NEC) using a dedicated frequency and in future expect to use LTE at 2.6GHz for a small cell rollout. They strongly believe that mobile data throughput and availability will replace coverage as the differentiating factor for mobile network operators.

Optus, Australia, reported their success with a residential femtocell solution which is based on Alcatel-Lucent's product. Their biggest challenges related to modem compatability and spectrum (they are using a dedicated frequency). They chose to include an offer of unlimited national calls (for one phone). Churn has improved. Future plans include more differentiated offers and presence based applications.

The figures from Japanese and Korean networks are really quite staggering. Softbank Japan, who have 30 million customers, already have 130,000 cellsites, 190,000 femtocells and 250,000 Wi-Fi hotspots. With traffic growth of 12x predicted from 2010 to 2016, they are helped by some new 900MHz spectrum. Their extensive Wi-Fi hotspot network can't be increased in capacity because of interference problems, so they are planning a further 200,000 outdoor femtocells and estimate some 500,000 LTE femtocells will be needed to handle the traffic offload. Contela, a Korean vendor, explained the rapid takeup of LTE in that country and the extensive plans to expand the world's first LTE commercial femtocell deployment.

Other parts of the solution

A survey reported that 62% of network operators recognise that Wi-Fi has a major role to play. That's quite a different position from a few years ago when many were mandating that Wi-Fi was disabled on their handsets.

Backhaul is highly relevant to small cells. The NGMN has just published a extensive report on the requirements. A combination of three main wireless options (Point-to-Point, Point-to-Multipoint and Non-Line-of-Sight) will be needed, with different requirements for NotSpots (dead coverage areas) compared to HotSpots (high traffic reas) because the consequences for outages are not the same. Wireless backhaul vendors such as Cambridge Broadband Networks were visible at the event for the first time.

Smart Caching can also dramatically reduce the need for backhaul bandwidth. Ubiquisys were demonstrating live their SmartCell with local caching of video traffic. Intel (whose chip is embedded in the smart cell architecture), have developed a detailed business analysis tool (WiROI) to be used to plan optimal small cell deployment. Their trials and simulations show that caching can reduce backhaul demands and provide savings of up to 30-40%. Intel themselves aren't focussed on the residential femtocells, but rather the enterprise/public access units of 16 users or more.

Core network at the edge. Quortus have developed a full core network software module positioned to run in the enterprise, either on a small cell itself or on a separate server. This intercepts the Iu-h interface and selectively redirects voice and data traffic to the local enterprise PBX/data network without disrupting the host mobile network. Mindspeed also offer an enterprise server solution, bridging the gap between a full ACTA carrier-grade server and lower cost/more common enterprise IT servers.

Modular versus upgradeable. Public access metrocells will need to be low maintenance and last for many years. Alcatel-Lucent have developed a metro-dock – a "blade server for the lamppost" – where pluggable cards can be quickly swapped to provide LTE or future combinations of RF. Chip vendors such as Texas Instruments were keen to stress that provision for future software downloadable upgrades would avoid heavy future OPEX costs, requiring a more powerful and efficient chipset from the outset. Several vendors were keen to encourage operators to look at the OPEX costs rather than trying to drive down the (initial) CAPEX – a cheap solution today might well cost much more to maintain/replace/upgrade in the years ahead.

The Solution isn't just the box: Solution providers such as NEC and Alcatel-Lucent explored the wider range of operational aspects involved in deploying a small cell network. Few companies have gained the field expertise to do this – not just the technical aspects but how to ensure it's profitable. ip.access launched their Network Orchestration System  - a toolkit to support small cell deployments.

Timing and Synchronisation are an essential element, and even more important for LTE small cells. Symmetricom launched their Soft-Clock Timing/Sync solution which uses any/all of four technologies to achieve an accurate timing reference. It's already in field trials and the solution is supported by several software stack vendors, chipset vendors (MINDSPEED, Qualcomm, Broadcom etc.) and at least 6 femtocell vendors.

Outdoor metrocells aren't a trivial expansion from residential femtocells. The need for carrier grade software quality, robust testing of many more "corner cases", wider temperature range, higher RF power (and the need for much more efficient RF front ends) are but a few of the additional considerations required to build commercially successful metrocells. Neither are they simply shrunken macrocells. I suspect few of the residential femtocell vendors will make this step, and there is definitely specific industry knowledge/expertise required.

Rural femtocells are more viable. Several factors are coming together to enable a new breed of rural femtocells for remote regions – both in developing and developed world. Satellite capacity has grown dramatically, making it commercial feasible to support 3G smartphones via a solar powered femtocell. Low cost ground stations (satellite receivers) with a power consumption of just over 20 Watts combined with a rural 3G femtocell will bring service to almost any region of the world at an affordable price.

Small Cell Forum Awards

As Chair of the Judging Panel for this year's Small Cell Forum Awards, I'd like to congratulate the winners (and those short listed) on their achievement. All judges participated in each category and thoroughly reviewed each submission. Those who won can be rightly proud of their achievement. The shortlist and winners are listed on the Small Cell Forum website here.

Apologies again for the many omissions from this report - there was simply too much going on to cover it all. Watch this space for pictures, videos and further in-depth reports.

As always, if I've misreported or misquoted anybody, feel free to correct me using the comment box below.

You can also find other reports of the event elsewhere, including:

Caroline Gabriel, Rethink Technology Research who says there was "...a sense that small cells were now inevitable for almost every operator's five-year plan. Some leading edge carriers outlined ambitious near term deployments"

A series of blog posts on Alcatel-Lucent's Wilson Street website, including one on O2's London metrocell deployment, catchily titled "the biggest smallest network in the world"

Meanwhile ABI Research comprehensively recapped the various press announcements, but I don't believe were present at the event itself.

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    Residential

    Residential

    A significant number of users continue to report poor mobile coverage in their homes. There will always be areas which are uneconomic for mobile operator to reach. They range from rural areas

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    Enterprise

    Enterprise

    The term Enterprise addresses any non-residential in-building including hotels, convention centres, transport hubs, offices, hospitals and retail outlets. It's not just intended for businesses to

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    Urban

    Urban

    Urban small cells (sometimes also named metrocells) are compact and discrete mobile phone basestations, unobstrusively located in urban areas. They can be mounted on lampposts, positioned on the

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    Rural

    Rural

    A rural small cell is a low power mobile phone base station designed to bring mobile phone service to small pockets of population in remote rural areas. These could be hamlets, small villages or

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